How Bartholomew Bishops Got His Name

How Bartholomew Bishops Got His Name

There’s a land, far away in time, where vows are sacred, and witchcraft is real. It’s a strange place, and the stories from there are stranger still.

Chapter 1: Woodland Wonder

Bart didn’t know what year he lived in. He was neither aware of what land. Bart did know this: his home was a farm, and it was spring. Because, in the spring, the farmland’s grass was the most appetising.

Bart knew this better than any man because he knew, too, that he was a goat.

The morning mist left pin-sized dew drops in the green around the farm. They tickled Bart’s ankles as he walked onto the field. He tipped his nose to the ground to inhale the gentle scent of the grass. Then he plucked a mouthful straight out of the damp earth. He chewed thoughtfully, like a lord tasting a tender quail breast.

Bart swallowed. He ran his tongue over his yellowed teeth. Then he concluded that, yes, it was spring. Mid-spring, the last snowy crispness of the grass had faded.   

However, Bart was not so unworldly a goat that it was all he knew. He knew he hated the simpleness of his name. ‘Bart’ was the name of a plain knave or a ditch digger.

Bartholomew, now that was a real name, Bart thought. Neither the farmer Hugo nor the other livestock agreed. The first couldn’t make out a word of Bart’s many bleats and baas. The others didn’t bother.

Aside from that, Bart knew he had a respectable life — at least as long as it lasted. He shared a respectable meadow with many sheep and his sister, Tillie. When the weather wouldn’t allow them to go out, they could safely retreat to the barn beside the farmer’s house. The hay there was always pleasantly soft, and the Bible prayers that the farmer recited at dinner for his wife, Olivia, and their three children were like a sweet lullaby.

No, there was no reason for Bart to abandon his secluded lifestyle. What more could he desire but his cosy barn and flourishing field? He’d find a reason soon, though…

Bart grazed on until late in the noon. He’d satisfied his stomach with so much grass that he had no choice but to settle down in the pasture. Despite their parents ‘ wishes, the farmer’s children had also given him a handful of oats.

‘Don’t waste more on the old billy than we’ve already done,’ Olivia told her children. ‘The day he’ll sire any kids will be the same one our hogs will do a circle dance.’

There were no pigs on the farm. As soon as the farmer’s wife turned her back to Bart and Tillie, both emitted a disgruntled bleat. It always disturbed the goats whenever she made such perverse suggestions of inbreeding. Yet, they understood the misconception of their lineage.

Bart and Tillie had been brought up on different farms by different does. On top of that, Bart was a big billy goat as dark as jet, with horns like two crescent moons and a goatee any other goat — and perhaps even man — would be envious of. In contrast, Tillie was a tender russet doe with two tiny stubs to adorn her head as if she were a princess. Still, both goats bore an identical, thumb-sized, white mark between their horns.

That detail led them to question each other’s lineage when farmer Hugo brought them to his farm after buying them from the market. Both were the seeds of a local prized breeding buck named “Balthazar”. What first had been a promise of a new chapter in life with new grounds and a partner and kids now appeared more like a pageless book. Tillie would never produce milk. Bart never got to prove his worth as a buck.

Farmer Hugo had been conned, and neither of his new purchases could tell him. All animals could talk with one another and learn to understand men in time, yet humans remained rather deaf to the speak of beasts. All Hugo could listen to was his wife, who kept telling him to butcher the two seemingly infertile goats to at least get something out of them. So far, he had not given in to her heeds. The goats had roamed his fields for one and a half years now.

Despite the Holy Scripture telling Hugo beasts had no souls, he still saw it as a sin to slaughter his herd of two.  He had convinced his wife and himself anything could still happen. Or better said, his youngest daughter, who doted on both Bart and Tillie, had. But for how long would they be able to keep up that lie?

Bart forgot all about it when he rested his head in the greens. The sun gave him a tender glance from high up in the endless blue spring sky, and Bart fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.

When Bart awoke, the warm beams of the sun made way for the chilly glow of the moon. The farmhouse’s chimney was coughing up smoke. Tillie had already retreated to the homely barn.

Bart slowly got up, stretching his every stiff limp. Before he was ready to follow his sister’s example, he gave himself a good scratch against the side of the wattle fence. It did not help much. Bart sensed a tick had crept under his fur and tried to scrape it away with a loose branch from the fence. That felt a lot better. Bart was just about to get a lash scratch to make sure the tick was gone when suddenly, the twig snapped. It’d been full of rot, and the rest of the fence’s section must have, too, for it immediately fell backwards.

One loud crack, and then, the fence was open. Bart’s ears perked up, but all he heard after that were the goodnight songs of the blackbirds, the subdued swishing of the tree and the babbling of the river in the forest. The night was deserted. No blame would fall on him.

Even Sofie, Hugo’s guard dog, was nowhere to be found. Bart suspected the bitch had made herself at home by the fireplace, curled up at her master’s feet, or was being smothered by his children’s cuddles. For how could they not love the hound’s ever-sad eyes and flappy jowls and ears?

Grudgingly, Bart headed towards the opening in the fence. He’d lodge a complaint against Hugo tomorrow, even if the farmer did not understand it. Bart was no fool; he’d heard the man warn his children to stay away from the woodlands. Lately, a wolf had made itself lord there.

‘Imagine the wolf noticed the fence is as rotten as a hoof after a season on wet soil,’ Bart said. ‘Lord be good; I might’ve been a bone by now! I wager my sister and the other beasts wouldn’t be better off either.’

Bart hooked his horns between the branches that made up the fallen part of the fence.

It had held him safe and captive for almost all his two years on earth. That mightn’t seem much, and in human years, it wasn’t. In goat years, however, that made Bart a little over twenty-five. He was already ripe for a fine midlife crisis. 

Bart planted his hoofs into the dirt, bracing to set the fence back into its usual place. He hesitated. Would the fence be open and unguarded ever again?

Bart doubted it. He pulled his head from between the twigs, suddenly feeling confident that someone must’ve perceived his daredevilish conduct, but no. Even the blackbirds had ceased their songs and put on their nightcaps.

Bart raised his head skywards and noted that the weather was also a blessing. Clouds were as absent as witnesses, and high, high up, centred in a dark meadow of stars stood the moon, glimmering like a halo. The soothing silence of the woods told him no wolf was ahead; for now.

The light blinded Bart, and for a second, he felt himself a saint addressed by God Himself.

Then Bart blinked. His eyes hurt, and he saw the moon again for what it was; a luminous, large circle in the sky that bore an uncanny resemblance to spoiled cheese. All sight of the previous miracle was lost, yet the feeling remained. Bart was determined now. He advanced towards the opening in the fence more. Rather than closing it, he went straight through it and uttered, ‘Better to be a wolf’s meal and have no one know than to be remembered by one’s fellows as a pie.’ Still, Bart had no intention of being eaten and kept his ears up and eyes and nostrils open as he went into the woods.

The unfamiliarity of the forest slightly startled Bart. It made the night appear like an enemy rather than the time of peace and comfort he usually experienced it as. There were no lights save for the stars and the moon, and the canopy of birches obscured them. The white knots of the birch trees followed Bart with a thousand eyes. He greeted them with a civil, brief, ‘Good evening, woodland watchers,’ to ease his mind.

The birches’ branches sighed under a seemingly non-existent wind. Bart cautiously plodded on through bracken and nettles. It was not long until he stumbled upon the river that cut the forest in twain. A fallen tree bridged it. Bart, who’d never seen so much water, let alone swam in it, eyed the log dubiously. Its scent was that of the living, with only a touch of rot. The tree had fallen recently, and Bart decided there was no risk in crossing it. He did. His ancestral mountain-scaling skills did not fail him; his hooves touched the opposite river bank before he realised it. 

 The other side of the woods was even queerer. Its eye-level fauna consisted solely of firs, pines and bracket fungus who cared not for the fact that it was spring. The forest floor was a carpet of weeds and detritus, too decayed to tell what it had once been. These woods were riddled with the dead.

Yet, to Bart’s surprise, there was a bird singing. Not a blackbird, not a thrush, not even a robin redbreast. It was an owl. Bart picked up speed until he could make out the words: 


Who to eat?

All the mice meat?

‘Would like fish, honey or stew, 

But mice meat,

‘Tis all I eat.’

‘Excuse me,’ Bart interrupted, but he got no further than that.

The vocalist twitched his head, once, twice, until he’d inspected every inch of forest around him. ‘Who?!’ The owl exclaimed. ‘Who’s there?!’

‘Me, good sir! I’m here, down below upon the ground.’

‘Oh!’ The owl’s bulging orange eyes gleamed down. ‘It hadn’t come to my attention that I had an audience. Who, and pardon me for my rudeness, what are you?’   

‘I’m Bart.’ Bart considered and then corrected himself: ‘Bartholomew. I’m a goat.’

The owl hooted again. ‘Oh! Now I see; you have a white mark between your horns, but otherwise, you are a twin of the shadows.’

‘And you are, sir…?’

‘I,’ the owl stroked his plumed neck like a gentleman sprucing up his tie, ‘am Oaken Talon, and I hunt the mice.’

So much Bart had concluded himself, had it not been from this owl, then all the ones he’d spotted searing past the farm. One thing he did wonder, though. ‘But how come? I know a cat may hunt a mouse for fun, and a dog will kill one for his master.’ he asked. ‘But they also feast upon other flesh. How come you have to do with mice?’

‘How come? How…? Dear Master Bartholomew, isn’t it obvious? If I were not to hunt the mice, their numbers would swell and swell, and their hunger grows and grows, and soon of the forest and farms, nought shall be left…

‘Therefore, it’s important I take this job seriously, you see? The rules of the forest have been shunned enough.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Oh my, you must be new here! It’s the wolf, that disagreeable hellion! A most ill-mannered creature, yes! He never greets me or sheds me as much of a glance. And to add kindle to the fire, he makes my work nigh on impracticable.

‘Every night he treads the woods, that gutbucket can’t keep himself from wolfing down all men and beasts who cross his path. Any clue as to how many weasels, foxes and snakes went down his greedy gullet?’


‘Me neither.’ Oaken Talon ruffled his feathers. ‘But I can tell you that most of the members of the Mouse-hunting Guild are gone. Nowadays, only me and the falcons and the buzzards get to execute this noble profession.

‘Speaking of which, I ought to start my shift. If you’ll pardon me, Master Bartholomew, I must bid you farewell — for now.’

‘Goodbye!’ Bart said, and the owl Oaken Talon took off without a sound. He got swallowed by the pricking shadows of the pines.

Bart looked around. The warning about the wolf had made him even more skittish, and he wondered if his jaunt had been as good an idea as he’d thought. He wanted to go back — back home to the warm barn and the safe locked-up barn, where he could safely wait for the farmer to fix the fence.


Which way was that again? Bart didn’t know. All the pines and mushrooms looked alike. And it was too dark to see the steps he’d left on his way here. Bart called for Oaken Talon, hoping he could perhaps point him in the right direction.

No reply. Only the trees sighed. It was then that Bart admitted he was lost. ‘Hello?’ he tried, now to no one in particular. ‘Hello?! Anyone there? I’m but a young billy goat, too young to perish here on a delightful spring eve like this one, and I lost my home! It’s past the river, and—’

Bart stopped bleating. The river! He thought himself a fool, not having considered it before. If he found the river, he’d find the bridge of twigs and trunk again.

After many twists and turns, Bart stumbled upon the river. The gibbous moon was mere minutes away from washing herself in the water. Sunrise started on the other side of the river, yet there was no bridge to go over it.

Perhaps the fallen tree lay past the crook in the stream, Bart thought. Not knowing where else to go, he headed in that direction.

Bart ploughed through the reeds. The soggy ground sucked at his hoofs like a moist grandmother’s kiss, and the black feathering on his feet became brown with mud. The bridge soon appeared from the morning mist, which glided over the river with the same gentleness as Oaken Talon had flown earlier.

There was something near the bridge, no more than a few hoof steps away from Bart. It was a man. Or, so Bart thought.

The man lay flat on his belly — impossibly flat — as if he were a deerskin rug. And the man was only skin, Bart saw. He moved closer. The ‘man’s’ hands bore an uncanny resemblance to unused gloves, and his eyes were empty holes, gaping at Bart blankly. He didn’t have a wisp of body hair. 

Bart was disgusted. And at the same time, a curiosity akin to that which led him away from his farm tugged at his senses. He pushed his nose under the skin’s belly and warily turned it over. The skin’s chest was open, cut or torn, Bart couldn’t tell, but no trace of flesh was left. It was almost as if…

Yes, but no; could one say that? It was almost as if the skin was a jacket. The large slit at the front, the skilfully skinned insides, and a tanning job that made the skin as flexible as a cat. The skin was meant to be worn.

Bart had to try. He nuzzled his nozzle into the head hood and discovered it to be unexpectedly comfortable. His horns weren’t an issue. The same went for the rest of the skin. The toes of corneous hooves became soft and crooked and curved until they fitted the hand like a glove. Bart’s bony wrists swelled until they suited their new suit too. The same happened to the rest of Bart’s body. His bones bent, his flesh folded, and his organs reordered themselves. It tickled.

 Once it stopped, Bart discovered he wasn’t himself anymore. He looked down. His new skin was darker than when he found it, as if his black fur shone through, like a figure on a sheet in shadow play. The hair that was still visible covered his otherwise naked crotch.

Bart wriggled his toes. Then he flexed his fingers, a delicate sensation he’d never felt. His fingers, they were so frail, yet they felt so much. Bart raised them to his newfound face.  A goatee — only a third of its original size — still covered his chin, but all else had changed. Bart rolled over clumsily to see himself in the water. The image was clouded, but what it showed was as clear as day.

A man’s face gawked at Bart. He was an odd fellow. His nose was large and hooked, and its bridge almost flowed perfectly into his forehead. The man’s dark eyes stood a bit too far apart. When he brushed his long, black locks out of his face, the man bore a fleshy pink birthmark on his forehead.

There was no more doubt; Bart stared at his reflection. He was speechless. He blinked, shook his head, and slapped his face to ensure he wasn’t dreaming. He felt the hit, yet that still did not convince him.

Bart pulled off the human hood. Instantly, his smooth man face reformed back into its trusted goat shape, the horns popping up last. Bart undressed from the skin, revealing his woolly coat, hooves and tail again. He looked at the skin, laying flat in the grass again like a snake’s. 

Bart was unable to withhold his wonder any longer. ‘It’s a miracle!’ he exclaimed, though he had no clue what was to be done with it. Bart walked around the skin, pondering what to do. He didn’t get far. A growl sounded somewhere between the bushes, a little over a horse’s leap away. 

Bart lowered his head so that his horns might counter whatever attack was to come with an equally fierce blow. But he knew that if the thing in the bushes was what he dreaded it to be, no defence could effectively end the upcoming offence.

A glimpse of fur emerged from between the bushes, but then an eye takes to blink. It was brown.

Bart stepped back. The wolf came forwards, emerging from the bushes. Both their breathing, filled with anguish and bloodlust, mingled in the misty air.

The growling resonated over the riverbank. Bart could find no words in it. All he made out was the utter hatred this wolf felt for him. He opened his mouth, hoping that, perhaps, he could reason with his assailant. Then he thought better. Bart reached down to the skin, clasping it between his teeth. He made a break for it.

Just in time;  the wolf leapt at him. A flash of maggot-brown fur, loathing eyes, yellowed teeth and drooling tongue flew past Bart, missing him at a nail’s length. The wolf caught a mouthful of the reed behind Bart instead. He tumbled over and came to a halt in the mud with a muted splash. By the time he’d recovered, Bart had made his way to the foot of the fallen tree bridge.

Bart struggled his way up the deadwood. He wore the skin over his back now, like a bandit’s horse carrying a hostage. He couldn’t go any faster without getting tangled up in skin or slipping over the bark-covered bridge.

But the wolf was catching up. He set his front paws on the tree, testing its firmness. The wood groaned. The wolf growled as if to scare the tree so stiff it could carry his weight. Bart felt the bridge tremble as the beast resumed his pursuit. He was mere steps away from the other side of the shore.

And what, then? It was a long way back to the farm, and even if Bart could reach the barn before the wolf got him, who said he’d be safe there? Who said the spiteful creature wouldn’t take out all his remaining rage on the other livestock?

Bart didn’t want to find out. He leapt, flinging himself and his newfound skin over the last chunk of the tree trunk. He landed on all fours yet did not run. Bart turned around to face the wolf.

The wolf barked viciously. Bart couldn’t hide the shiver that drew from his head to tail, but he found that he still had enough autonomy to force his body back to the bridge’s foot. He tilted his head down. He rooted his hoofs deep into the mud. Then, with all his might, he rammed his horns against the tree.

The bridge shuddered. The wolf growled. It terrified Bart not to hear as much as a hint of fear come from the beast’s throat — not even when he battered the tree for a second time.

The wood became weary now. It tilted to one side, twigs snapping, its rotten core cracking under the pressure. And even then, the wolf didn’t panic. It stared at Bart with those glaring, loathsome eyes as the tree broke under its paws.

A splash. Then, for a while, nothing. The wolf didn’t surface. He might’ve been drifting downstream, clinging onto the remnants of the fallen tree, but Bart couldn’t find it in his heart to care. He felt too many other things. He felt, for the first time in his twenty-five goat years, that he was alive.

Bart began to laugh and did so all the way back home. It sounded like the cackling of the Devil himself.

All animals had waited in the barn for Bart’s return. Even the dog Sofie, whose devotion to the farmer’s family could shame a king’s personal guard, had left the farmhouse for him. She was talking with Tillie and the horse Herman when Bart entered. 

‘Bart!’ Tillie exclaimed. ‘Where have you been?’

Herman nickered. ‘Your sister was worried about you.’

‘She kept urging I’d go after you,’ Sofie blurted out. ‘But I couldn’t part with Hugo; that’d mean breaking my Oath of the Dog. You know I can’t do that, Bart, yet I almost had to because of you!’

‘But that’s no longer needed,’ Tillie said.

All the animals — ten sheep, twelve hens and a cock, a stallion, a doe goat, a bitch dog and over twenty cows — focused on Bart. ‘I was away,’ he stammered. ‘In the woods.’

A collective sigh echoed through the barn. Animals can’t tell lies, though some have a gift for avoiding the truth. Such was not the case here. The cows shook their heads, beefing, ‘That’s what you stay up for,’ and ‘The oaf could and should’ve gotten himself eaten.’ The other animals sympathised with them, all but one. Perhaps two.

Tillie and Herman looked at Bart, the first very much upset. ‘You can’t go out there, Bart,’ she said. ‘It’s dangerous.’

Herman tapped on the stable floor with his dapple hoofs, agreeing. ‘I go out every day,’ he said. ‘Yes, I am of stalwart build and size, yet there are things in the woods that even make me shudder.’

‘I know,’ Bart said. ‘I even saw one of those creatures, the wolf Hugo has said so much about, and I faced him! The beast, I mean.’ Before either Tillie or Herman could respond, he threw his leathery treasure in front of them. ‘And I found this.’

The horse Herman let out a high-pitched neigh, baring his teeth. Tillie wrinkled her russet nose. ‘What is that?’

‘A miracle,’ Bart said proudly. ‘As close to a miracle as quills coming out of the sky and a stick turning into a serpent as you’ll ever find!’ He crawled under the skin, wearing the head over his own and donning the rest of the body as a traveller’s cloak. ‘You see it not now, yet when I wear this like a man wears his garbs, I become a man!’

‘So?’ Herman asked.

‘Is that not a miracle?’

‘It is.’ Tillie said. ‘But why would you want that?’

Bart cocked his head. The skin slid off and fell back onto the ground, where it lay lifeless again. ‘Why wouldn’t you?’ Bart asked in return. To that, Tillie and Herman had no answer either.

Later that week, a few of Farmer Hugo’s coins went missing. He blamed his children, and his wife clouted all three of them; the oldest, Thea, because she was responsible for her siblings in her mother’s absence; the middle child, David, because the farmer’s wife suspected he’d taken the money; and the youngest, Leah, just to teach her what to expect when committing a petty crime.

The children worked in the field with swollen, red ears that day. Bart didn’t notice. He slept through most of the morning and noon. It was in the night that he was wide awake, sewing and resizing clothes he’d pulled from the washing line to fit his new second body. It was a demanding task, and every time Bart let his attention slip, he’d sting himself in his human fingers.

One early morning, Hugo’s oldest daughter, Thea, went to the barn to check on the beasts; one could never be careful enough, knowing a particularly nasty wolf was nigh. It hadn’t struck here. The chickens were roosting while their shared husband, the cock was clearing his throat for his daily morning serenade. The sheep, the horse, and countless cows were wandering the borders of dreamland.  

Thea noticed that their black billy goat was very much sleepless. He marched through his pen like a soldier left to guard the royal treasure. ‘What is wrong with you now?’ she asked.

The black billy, naturally, didn’t reply. And yet, Thea could’ve sworn to twelve different saints that she saw the goat look at her dismissively. Then he looked at his still sleeping sister, the rest of his pen and halted.

‘Is something amiss with her?’ Thea tried. Her confusion made her forget how absurd she was being talking to the animal. ‘Is it your girl, Bart?’ she tried. ‘Are we finally going to have some wee kids on the farm?’

‘Baaaa!’ Bart threw his head in his neck and turned his hind towards the girl. When he did, she saw red drops mark the hay where his front hooves went.

Must’ve stepped on a thorn, Thea thought. I’ll get Father to get rid of it.

When Hugo checked on his only buck later that morning, there wasn’t a splinter. The goat’s hooves were bleeding, alright, but only at the tips. Never had farmer Hugo seen such a thing before. And yet, by the time it was eve, and he had said prayers before dinner, he was too exhausted to think about it again. He still had to fix the goats’ fence, get rid of the pests that riddled his rye fields, shave his flock of sheep and most importantly, get his horse’s hooves shoed and help his wife make cheese. After all, there would be a festival in the village in a couple of weeks. Hugo was determined to sell some of his homemade cheeses there for hopefully a bit of profit. That seemed unlikely, though. The cows had been tense all spring long with the wolf around, and it could be tasted in their milk.   

Chapter 2: To Town

Mid-spring was drawing ever closer. Bart, the man, went to the nearby village for the first time. Bart, the goat, had already been there one and a half years ago when Hugo bought Bart and his sister as kids. His legs could recall the way. Clad in a hose Bart had fashioned from a tablecloth, he let his feet take him to the village.

Bart had planned his trip with great care. Tillie didn’t have to know. The same went for the farmer’s family. When they weren’t home, Bart had borrowed a pair of leather working boots and left.

The weather was a blessing; clouds covered the sky like a thick, woollen blanket, yet Bart’s animal intuition told him not a single drop of rain would touch the earth that day.

An unusually tall building was the first thing Bart saw of the village. Its spire towered above the trees, and its clock — Bart had no clue what it said or meant — stared down upon him like a cyclops. Bart straightened the tablecloth-turned-scarf he wore around his hairless neck. It felt tighter than when he left the farm, as did the shirt made from bedsheets and the over-robe that was a wild assembly of old clothes.

‘A miracle,’ Bart said, like prayer. ‘Don’t waste it.’ He closed his eyes. His feet took care of the rest.

Something was going on in the village. Tents in florid colours obscured the cobblestoned centre square. People swarmed between the stalls like bees. Children played tricks on each other and their majors, yet no one punished them like Bart had seen the farmer and his wife do so often. Instead, people laughed. Then they took each other’s hands to dance like flirting butterflies to music made by lutes and flutes, drink mead and eat honeyed tarts. The smells were overwhelming. 

And Bart? Bart had always been a goat of many words, but right now, he could come up with none to word his wonder.

Bart meandered to the centre of it all as if bewitched. His breath stuck in his throat, clogged by scents so mouth-watering that his mouth overflowed. His eyes grew in a vain effort to absorb the scenery. Stalls selling clothes, fabrics and wools surrounded him like an immovable circle of dolmen where the villagers performed a shopping ritual he understood little of but wanted to participate in.

Bart had never bought anything. The only time money played a role in his life was when he was sold on this very same market. He felt in his pockets. There were nine coins, each of slightly different sizes and with other images, from knights riding horses to saints with staffs and kings with crowns.

Bart had to admit they were pretty to look at, yet found it hard to swallow that people were willing to trade the tasteless, metal portraits for food or garbs. Bart would’ve appreciated it if Hugo had spent a little of the metal on a coat for him to face the harsh winter weather, but he’d made his own now, so why buy another? However, not all farm animals possessed the skill to fashion themselves clothes.

Bart knew what he wanted to buy; something for his sister, both for her comfort and proof that his new skin was truly something extraordinary. He went back to a stand he passed earlier. It sold blankets, hats, and scarves. Bart’s eye fell on a particularly fuzzy-looking short cloak. It was as yellow as dandelion petals and enriched with snowdrop-white stitches. Bart stroked it. His human fingertips were so sensitive and the fabric so soft that he withdrew his hand, startled. Then he decided that, yes, Tillie would love to have such a snug cloak for the winter. He’d surprise her with it upon his return to the farm, along with many stories of where he’d been.

But how to buy it?

Bart looked at the people by the stall. Most stood on his side, inspecting the goods on display. There was only one man behind the counter whom the others addressed. There was no particular order for who was to speak to the salesman first, which confused Bart. It doomed him to wait until the other customers had moved on to their next venture and the salesman had put his income away in a pouch hanging from his belt.

‘A good choice, mister,’ the salesman addressed Bart. ‘You must have an eye for quality.’

Bart nodded slowly. He thought of what the other customers had done and wanted to ask, ‘How much is it?’

Only those weren’t the words that came out of his mouth. A bashful, ‘Baaa’, could be heard instead.

Bart cupped his hands over his mouth. Did he hear that correctly? Did he just bleat?

‘Excuse me?’ The salesman looked at Bart, and looked, and looked. Then, he laughed. ‘What a party animal you are, mister! Lost your voice from all the singing before noon already?’

Bart grinned sheepishly and nodded.

‘Well, bless you,’ the salesman said. ‘It’s five and a half, by the way. For the cloak.’

Bart got the coins from the pockets of his patched coat. Five and a half? But how? All the coins he had were as round as a full moon. And he couldn’t break one on the spot. The metal wouldn’t even give way had Bart been able to use his indestructible goat teeth, so he put all his coins in the salesman’s outstretched hand.

The salesman’s mouth fell open, his lack of teeth making it look like a cave. The gleam in his eyes was as greedy as that of a dragon. Still, his spirit was human, and it was decent. ‘Mister,’ the salesman stuttered, ‘this is too much. It’s enough for an entire costume, from heels to hat. And then some.’ The dragon’s desire gleamed in the salesman’s eyes again. His hands clawed around the coins. ‘How about this, dear mister; you give me these coins, and I give you the cloak and one other thing you may choose from me. Anything, as long as it’s part of my trade.’

Bart considered it. He had to. If all coins he had could buy him an outfit, then not a single cloak, hat or scarf the salesman sold could be of the same value. This much Bart already grasped.

And yet, Bart nodded, agreeing to the bargain. He and the salesman shook hands, and the latter slid the money into his pouch and began to fold the cloak. As he gave it to Bart, he asked, ‘So, what will it be?’

Bart pointed at the pouch, at the coins that almost overflowed it. The salesman grasped for it. ‘What, the coins?’ he said. ‘But that’s not a part of my trade…’

Bart shook his head. He held his left palm in front of himself, heavenwards. With his other hand, he tapped his palm, then his fingers and back again, as if to say: You traded it.

‘And therefore,’ the salesman sighed, regretting his choice of words, ‘it’s part of my trade.’ There was no going back for him. He and this stranger had made the deal under the watch of his God, and God forbid he broke it. Bart wasn’t aware of this human rule yet. He’d reasoned from the idea that animals couldn’t tell lies, but the result was the same.

The salesman reached for all his earnings at the festival thus far, slowly, as if to stretch time endlessly so that Bart may lose interest. He spread them out on Bart’s newly bought cloak. The rich yellow wool was now sparkling with silver and gold.

Bart thanked the man with a restrained grin and a polite bow. Then he took up just the cloak, and one of the coins he recognised was once his. The rest he shoved back over the counter, back to the salesman. This time, the man’s mouth fell open so far that Bart saw the last few teeth he still had in the back of his mouth, which he was likely to lose soon due to their generous rot.

Bart winked at the salesman. Then he walked away. He only had one metal coin left, and its value was a mystery to him. Bart didn’t mind. The way he’d taught the salesman a lesson and still made his day meant more to him than a piece of metal.

It only grew better when the same salesman stopped Bart. The man gave him a gorgeous, broad-brimmed hat with feathers and a lengthy stream of gratitude for his forgiveness, catching the eyes of many curious passers-by.

The rest of the day was Bart’s, and it felt as if it existed just for him. He visited all stands at least thrice, tipped his new hat to everyone and adored all the warm greetings he got in return.

With his last king-faced coin, Bart bought himself a mug of mead and two tarts, one sweet and one savoury, which he ate with relish whilst watching a puppet show. Bart feasted his eyes on the wood and cloth puppets. They acted out a play about a fox too clever to be caught and the other animals — a lordly lion, a thieving tomcat and a birdbrained bear — who tried to apprehend him.

A wolf was after the fox too. His wooden joints were jerky, and his jaw slanted. The people Bart watched the play with laughed when the wolf appeared on the small set. They snickered at his poor features and howled when his character proved to be just as wretched.

Bart laughed softly with them because he didn’t want the bleating giggles from his mouth to be heard, and the wolf scared him slightly. 

Bart finished both his food and mead after the puppet show came to an end. His head felt pleasantly fuzzy. It reminded him of the one time at the farm when he’d eaten an apple that had lain on the ground too long. The mead tasted similar to the apple: bitter. Bart was neither focused nor worried enough to figure that out. It was his day, after all.

The later it got, the more people drew from the stalls to the open part of the village square. They started to dance more and more, and more than before. Music made by tabors, lyres,  hurdy-gurdies, fiddles, flutes and bladder pipes swelled to match the rhythm their clacking shoes created on the cobblestones.

There were also people from out of town playing. They wore robes like rainbows and bore darker skin, reminding Bart of his own new one. The music they made was the most festive of all. They danced to it, some juggling various objects not meant to throw above one’s head. And they’d brought a bear with them.

It was a tall, rugged beast, nothing like the rickety puppet from earlier. He danced too, front paws up like a man, though he didn’t seem to experience the same glee as the humans did. When the bear stood still for as little as a second, a man tugged at the robe attached to the heavy metal ring through his nose. The bear groaned. Yet, he danced. The spectators found it all too amusing.

‘Good master bear,’ Bart approached the beast when his master granted him a break. He kept his voice too low for a human ear to hear, asking, ‘How are you doing? Everyone dances with glee, and soon I might too, but it brings you sorrow.’

The bear tilted his broad head. He sniffed, inhaling Bart’s scent deeply. ‘You smell as a beast does and speak as a beast does. My master would murder you to get such a skill.’

‘I doubt if it would earn him anything,’ Bart said. ‘For I am a beast, and my name is Bartholomew.’

The bear sighed. ‘I wish I could be a beast but look like a man. You see, Bartholomew, I do not despise dancing. Dancing is all I want, but I want it with a partner who holds me by the hand instead of the leash.’

Longingly, the bear stared at the whirling and twirling people. The bear’s master was among them, spinning in circles with his lover whilst his beast had been left tied to the cart they came with.

‘What’s your name?’ Bart asked the bear.


‘Well then, Master Boban the bear,’ Bart said, holding out his hand, ‘would you like to take this dance with me?’

Boban was growl-less, but Bart began to untie the rope around his nose ring. Some of the showily dressed strangers came running towards him. They shouted for Bart not to release the bear, yet none dared to come closer. Boban’s master was with them. He stepped forwards, his dark face turning carmine with anger. Villagers hurried away. Music faded.

Boban placed his callous paw in Bart’s hand. They rose together and set foot and paw upon the dancefloor. Everyone gawked in awe as the bear and the man waltzed by. The bear’s master uttered something in a language none of the villagers spoke. His dark skin was now white.

Then, someone, an untraceable face from the crowd, clapped. More followed. Others started to laugh, and the music caught up again.

How could they have been so silly? It was all an act! A gipsy dancing with a bear, how fantastic, how whimsical!

Bart and Boban ignored it all. They danced and danced until both were tired. With the promise they’d dance again the next time Boban came to town, Bart brought the bear back to his master. The man didn’t say ‘Thank you’.  He could only open his mouth to take a long sip from the bottle he held in his paled hands.

In the last hours of darkness, Bart returned to the farm. He leapt over the fence Hugo had hastily repaired, human, quickly undressed and entered the barn as a dark goat with his skin, clothes and brand-new cloak draped over his back. His new hat hung on one of his horns, as it would’ve on a coat rack.  

In one breath, Bart softly sang all the songs he’d heard that night at once. It went nowhere, and something like this:

‘I sing a new song,

Of William, who gave,

And who loved Déon,

A wench so fair, she could burn Earth and wave,

And lived in her father’s donjon, 

‘But William was brave, William was brave,

William, William, Wiliam was brave,

Brave, brave…’

Bart stopped by the small stable he shared with his sister. She lay in her bed of straw and shadows, but her head was up high.

‘You’re craven,’ Tillie’s usually honey-sweet bleat came from the half darkness. ‘For returning this late in the eve, to steal off to bed like a fox so that none will notice your absence.’ 

‘It’s late,’ Bart said, doubting his current arguing skills. The mead still had its mellow grip on him. ‘It’s late, and we ought to be asleep.’ 

‘You ought to have stayed here.’ Tillie declared. ‘I asked Sofie to search for you, but she said no, since your earlier shenanigans about the skin. And her Oath and all that.’

‘I’ll warn you next time.’

‘You’ll leave again?’

‘And come back. Again.’

Tillie hesitated. She lowered her head, burying her snout in her side. Bart asked, ‘Will you let me in now? I think Hugo locked our stable.’

‘Where were you, even?’

‘I—’ Bart considered, then said, ‘I’ve been at the end of the world.’

His sister raised an ear.

‘At the end of the world,’ Bart went on, ‘I  watched wooden wolves and foxes fight, drank mead and ate pie, danced with a bear and gave coins for a cloak.’

Bart pulled the newly-bought cloak from his black back. Holding up the fabric between his teeth, he struggled to say, ‘I got it for you. It’s wool and warm. Whatever else could you wish for in the winter, Tillie? Tillie?’

Bart bounced up on his hind legs and placed his front hooves against the stable door to better see his sister. Tillie exhaled something that was equally bleat as sigh. ‘I don’t want you gone, Bart. You’re my only brother.’

‘Hogwash!’ Bart exclaimed. ‘Applesauce and cad, and hogwash, Tillie! We have fields full of siblings!’

‘But none are here. And when you speak of full fields, you speak solely of strange sisters I’ve never met or left behind. All our brothers fill are stews, stomachs and sausages.’

‘I won’t leave you,’ Bart protested. ‘Not like that. And even if… you have Herman. Were he born with horns between his ears, he’d be as good a goat as any. And even if… Hugo would buy a new billy goat who could give you kids. Just think about that; all would be well for you then.’

As Bart’s bleats had grown louder, Tillie turned silent. She studied her hooves. Then she got up, shambling like a sleepwalker. She didn’t look at Bart, not even as they worked together to open the stable door.

Bart entered the stable. He shut the door behind him silently, not to wake the cattle. Tillie returned to her previous spot, lying down and pretending to sleep. Bart shook his human skin and souvenirs off his back. The new cloak he draped over his sister. Then he huddled up next to her.

‘When I was at the end of the world,’ Bart whispered, ‘I wished you were there to witness it too. No words can convey what it was like; the strangeness, the spectacle… it made no sense, and yet it did. I’d have to take you with me to show you.’   

‘I don’t want to, Bart.’


‘Why not?’

Bart opened his mouth, shut it, and opened it again as if to chew the cud. Tillie glanced at him, a mocking glimmer in her oval pupils. It took a while before Bart realised that his words of weeks past had turned into a double-ended blade his sister now used against him.

‘Then not,’ Bart said, so synthetically severe he started sniggering. ‘But then I must warn you, dear sister, not to bleat when I return with tales to tell from every trip. And you shall listen.’

‘As long as you return.’

‘Oh, Tillie, did you already stop listening to me?’

Tillie kept her end of the bargain and always attended to her brother’s bold stories. Bart stuck to his promise as well. However, to his sister’s chagrin, he went to the village more often than she liked and more and more often.

The festival turned out to be a human-yearly occasion, but that made the trips no less dull. Bart bought pastries at the bakery with ‘borrowed’ money from his farmer. Ignoring the mince-filled ones, he got honeyed pies that brought him back to the festival with every bite and new ones that were sticky with jam. All were luscious, and often Bart would bring a few back to the farm to share with his sister over all the tales he had to tell.

The other beasts also lent their pointed, rounded, lopped or invisible ears to Bart’s reports. It was a delight to them to hear something different than Bible recitals before dinner, which came from the house next to their stables and were more men-focused.

Bart told everything.

Well, almost everything.

Bart made ewe to cow awe with his travelling tales. No longer was he stubborn silly billy goat Bart. He was Bartholomew, a storyteller, and all beasts suddenly called him such.

‘Please, Bartholomew,’ the hens asked after every town trip, ‘tell us about how the chickens in the town live. Surely they don’t have it as good as we do?’

‘And what of the sheep, Bartholomew?’ the sheep begged. ‘We heard there were none in neither city or town. How is that possible?’

‘And, eh, Bartholomew?’ Tilly would always enquire, ‘All was safe and well, right?’

 Bart answered all questions, and the animals hung on his every word as he spoke of the town, which stretched tens and tens times as much ground as the farmland. The houses were made of loam, wood, and stone. Some roads were paved as well. Herman could confirm this; his master had gotten him special metal shoes so that his hooves wouldn’t get hurt when they went to the town square or even the city to sell greens, grain or cheese. 

But there were also things Herman couldn’t confirm; why one ought to tip one’s hat when coming eye-to-eye with a stranger; what shops smelled like on the inside; why people always dressed in additional furs even when their hairless hides steamed with sweat in the summer; how coins worked; and why the streets were always empty on Sunday morning.

Bart had figured that out all by himself, and he took great pride in it every second he spoke of it. Every time he’d finished his tales, however, his fellow farm animals’ interests dwindled back to their usual dull state. Though Bart revelled in his fellow beasts’ newfound admiration for him, he found their lack of willingness to discuss the human ways rather disappointing. The same went for his sister. Hence, he hadn’t told any of them one of the queerest things he’d witnessed lately.

One Sunday, before the rooster cried his off-key morning song, Bart said goodbye to Tillie and put on his skin and clothes. The farmer’s family wasn’t up yet, but Bart knew they’d soon be. He was right. At the rooster’s last cock-a-doodle-doo, Hugo, Olivia, Thea, David and Leah left, leaving their beasts behind undefended but fenced.

Bart followed them. He kept his broad-brimmed hat low over his face, and through the woods, he kept his distance. Bart was sure they wouldn’t recognise him in his human form; they hadn’t marked him out at the festival. He didn’t want to raise any questions, though, if only for the reason that he couldn’t reply to them in a tongue they understood.

The path turned out to be a familiar one. Bart had taken it the first time he’d gone to the village and ever since. But not this time. Now the road ended at the porch of the tall building adorned with stone statues of saints and all other things holy. Its carved wooden doors stood wide open, inviting, like a flower in bloom.

  It’d drawn more people to it than just the farmer’s family, as much, or even more than were at the festival. But there was no music. No dancing. No bears. Bart felt betrayed. He noticed that the people entered the building, and he guessed that the party might be there.

If the outside of the construction was kingly, the inside was imperial. There were more idols of the divine, some marble, some even gold. Halos in colours of the rainbow and more shone down upon them through the stained glass windows that lit up frescos of Heaven and Hell. 

But there was no feast. The quietness of the people that terrorised the outside of the building reached its full potential inside. Only the elephantine glistening monster in the back of the place sounded. It had no legs, no eyes, no body. It was just a being of a hundred trunks whose blares resonated through Bart’s bones, scaring him. But he couldn’t turn back. The surge of people herded him only further into the building, where, nearing the altar, Bart realised that the monster was not. It blew air in and out in bombastic tones, yet didn’t breathe. It didn’t smell like it ever had.

The monster was made of metal. A man sat next to it on a stool, pressing the thing’s teeth with fingers as agile as ant legs. Every tender touch made the monster spew sonorous sounds from its horns, and Bart had to admit that they bore a suspicious resemblance to flutes. Suppose this thing was an instrument, too, just a lot bigger.  

‘Excuse me, mister?’

Bart turned to his left, surprised. The man who’d addressed him stared at him as one would at a simpleton. Bart didn’t notice. He focused on the man’s silken cassock, over which hung a golden, bejewelled cross. ‘Will you please take a seat, mister?’ the priest said. ‘The sermon is about to start.’

Bart nodded. Everything about this man spelt out that he was not one to argue with. Bart could conclude from conversations in the farmer’s family that he was the one they called ‘Priest Benjamin’. And he knew the word he used, ‘sermon’. It had been mentioned by the farmer’s family as well. Sometimes they spoke of a good sermon, a stirring sermon, a long sermon, and sometimes, under their breaths, a dull sermon. One thing all sermons had in common; they all took place in ‘the church’. So, Bart thought, looking around in even more awe than before, this then must be the infamous holy church.

‘And,’ the priest said before Bart turned away. He pointed at Bart’s hat. ‘Would you be so kind as to take that off?’ Then, with a beaming holier-than-thou look, he added, ‘The brim is so broad, you might miss half of my sermon.’

Bart looked around. All male attendees bore bare heads. The women, however, hid their hair under wimples, caps or other pieces of headwear. Bart couldn’t fathom its reasoning but took off his hat anyway. He sat down on a bench like the rest. The building’s door, which had previously stood open so invitingly, shut.

Then, it happened; the reason why Bart hadn’t shared a single word about his trip to the strange place with anyone, something he couldn’t describe nor fully recall afterwards.

The priest took his place at the altar and raised his hands. The mighty metallic flute-like beast in the back of the church started to sing louder and deeper than before. The other people joined in.

What they sang, Bart couldn’t tell. The tones formed human words in a language he’d never heard before. Still, he understood them. He understood it in the same way the humans felt a blackbird’s pride as he sang, the togetherness of the crickets chirping on a summer’s eve, and the energy of the frogs croaking as they challenged their rivals.

Bart found himself back in the same sunny field he’d fallen asleep in the night before he snuck off and found his new skin. It was a kind of fever dream that you never want to wake up from but eventually have to or otherwise die. In Bart’s case, he was stirred by a nudge from the man beside him. He opened his dark eyes to find the singing had stopped.

The priest opened his Bible and told a story which started with two numbers and a name. Bart didn’t listen. He knew the tales of sins and virtues weren’t for him. As a beast, he supposedly had no soul to be bothered about. Bart leaned back on the bench gently and loosened the ex-tablecloth scarf around his neck. Was it just him, or had the heat in the tightly packed church risen during the hymns?

‘That new stoker still doesn’t know his craft,’ the man next to Bart muttered as if he’d read his mind. Bart looked at him, not understanding.

‘The stoker.’ the man pointed at the tiled floor under their feet.‘Of the furnace below. You’re not from here, are you?’

Bart shook his head. The man, turning a deaf ear to the preacher, whisperingly began to tell him how this particular church had a rare heating system dating back to Roman times.   

To Bart, it was another miracle of many.  

Chapter 3: Beast

There was no moon that night, and it was dark in the barn. Bart, one of the few beasts awake, could not perceive anything beyond his own nose. But then there was a creak.

Bart lifted his head. One of the barn’s doors went open, and a thin streak of light fell upon the straw-covered floor. In it was cast the shadow of a gloved hand holding a bucket. The bucket swayed to and fro. A gentle slapping sound came from it, alluding to the delicious grain feed it contained. Whomever the gloved hand belonged to confirmed it.

‘Food, food, food,’ he called out. The voice was as fair as that of a young maiden. He was no part of the farmer’s family. The other animals had taken note of that as well. Now that some of the darkness had escaped through the door, Bart saw the stranger had stirred them too. They shifted from hoof to hoof or claw to claw. Bart, however, stood steadfast. He could tell by the smell he’d encountered the intruder before and tried to recall the occasion — to no avail.

Meanwhile, the intruder set the door fully ajar. His incredible figure filled the entire frame, yet there was not much to gather about him. He had concealed himself in a cloak that reached to the grimy ground. His face was no more than a black hole he hid under his hood.

Tillie had woken up too by now. As her eyes shifted from the intruder to Bart, he could see their whites. The intruder kept swaying the bucket. ‘Food, food, food.’

Bart and Tillie instinctively moved to the back of their pen as the stranger stepped into the barn. Next to them, Herman neighed, apprehensive but soft. The intruder placed his gloved forefinger over his obscured lips and shushed.

Other animals were more trusting of the intruder. As he passed the hens and the cock, they stepped aside for him like they would for any other human. The cows didn’t even raise an ear. Then, however, the intruder reached the sheep pen right next to Herman’s stable. With one swing of the food-filled bucket, all ewes and their ram came running.

‘Good, good,’ the intruder whispered with the voice of an angel. ‘I brought you all enough.’

The sheep thought otherwise. They kept pushing each other aside for no more than a lick of feed. It didn’t help that the intruder clearly favoured the two black ewes of the flock above all others. He let them eat out of his gloved hand, called them nice names in his sweet voice, and even petted them on their heads.

The black ewes paid little attention to it. They only had an eye for food. Had the one closest to the intruder been wary, she might’ve noticed that he let his petting hand slide from her head to her neck. But it was too late by then.

The intruder dropped his bucket. The hay drowned out the smack it would’ve made but did nothing for the gruel, which splashed everywhere. The nearest sheep stuck their heads through the fence to lick it up, ignorant of what had befallen the black ewe.

To Bart and Tillie, it was clear as day what happened despite the dark of the night. They watched between Herman’s trembling legs when the stranger wrapped his gloved hands around the ewe’s throat. He lifted her from her pen as if she was a fleece without flesh.

The intruder brought the confused and bleating beast to his hooded head. He bit down on her once, twice. Neither Bart, Tillie or Herman — who was looking away anyways — could not see the attacks take place, for the intruder had his back towards them. The outcome of his action was undeniable, though. Once the ewe stopped struggling, stopped sputtering, stopped moving, the intruded let her go in the same way one would do with a bag of dirt. Had the ewe’s entire throat not been eaten to the bone, one might not have guessed she was dead. The night had made her blood as dark as her fur and Bart’s.

At once, Bart understood what was happening — what this intruder was. Somehow, even though his walk and voice were human, there was no doubt that it was the wolf Bart had encountered in the woods that one peculiar night. The stench of malice he emitted was undeniable. He’d come to the barn to take out his rage on Bart and, probably, more.

Bart carefully yet quickly uncovered his human skin and clothes he’d hid under the hay. He had to get away, disguise himself, and hide while the intruder turned his attention towards the remaining black ewe. Bart didn’t believe he could do anything for her anyways. She and the other sheep suddenly realised the danger they were in. They gathered at the back of their pen to form a futile wool wall.

As Bart struggled to get into his human skin, the intruder leapt over the fence of the sheep pen. He landed on two feet right in front of his prey. Bart looked away as he heard the intruder rip the black ewe’s head off. Herman caught most of the splatters of blood and began to stagger. A few drops landed on Bart’s now human face too. He rubbed them out of his eyes. When he opened them again, he looked at his sister. She was horror-struck. The intruder was coming towards them.

Bart couldn’t think straight anymore — dread had driven away all the reason residing in him. He climbed out of his pen, a trembling naked man holding his clothes under his arms, leaving Tillie behind. She was so scared she couldn’t move to stop him. She just glanced from the intruder to her brother. Bart hid behind Herman’s behind, out of the intruder’s view.

The intruder stopped before the goat pen. His hooded face turned to Tillie. He held his now bloodstained bucket to her, chanting, ‘Food, food, food,’ again. Tillie didn’t succumb to his spell. She instead thrust her slim head up as if to stand a fight before the intruder would slay her — not there was any chance of that happening. The intruder simply opened the pen’s gate and stepped inside. He cocked his obscured head. Then he reached out to Tillie, stoking the white blaze between her horns with gloved fingers.

‘Hmmm,’ the intruder muttered. ‘All alone… White spot… And dark fur… Are you my tormenter, little goat?’

The intruder let his fingertips run past Tillie’s cheeks in what was almost a tender gesture. Tillie didn’t budge. Her frightened eyes were on Bart as she whispered, ‘Run. I’ll keep him up.’

 The intruder didn’t seem to grasp her words. To Bart, they hit like a hammer. His animal instincts agreed and took hold of his feet, which led him past Herman’s flank, away from the intruder. But then Bart stopped. Maybe the skin he’d been wearing had made him more human. Or perhaps goats could set aside their own survival, too, if but for a moment, if they tried hard enough. Right now, it was not of importance. What was, was that Bart let out a resolute ‘No.’

It immediately drew the intruder’s attention away from Tillie. He let her go and turned towards Herman and Bart, who still stood hidden behind the plowhorse. Herman shuddered and stepped back, nearly crushing Bart between his heavyset body and the barn walls. The intruder snickered at this display of dread. ‘Don’t be shy,’ he said.

At first, Bart thought that the words were meant for Herman. Then, he added, ‘We’ve met before, haven’t we?’ and Bart knew they were for him. He made no response. He waited for the intruder to make his first move.

‘Don’t deny it,’ the intruder went on. ‘I know your bleat. Oh, but then, you didn’t know my voice yet. You only knew my growl. Well then, let me remind you, you foul beast…’

A vicious and meaningless growl came from under the hood. A glimpse of yellowed teeth became visible in the dim light. Then, the intruder pulled the whole hood back, revealing the rest of his wolfish self. His human voice was no longer lovely as he snarled, ‘Now, fiend, where is my skin?!’

At that moment, Herman, who could stay calm in the busiest part of the city, broke. He neighed as if being slaughtered, staggered and bucked like a wild horse. One of his mighty hooves headed right towards Bart’s head. He sprung away at the last moment. The horseshoe hit the fence behind him, turning the solid wood into thousands of splinters. Between Herman’s stomping legs, Bart saw the wolf close in. He no longer donned his gloves. Instead, he held out two clawed hands, which were both human and wolf, yet neither.

Herman was too frenzied to fight off the intruder. Bart considered calming him by putting his bridle on and stroking him, much like he’d seen Hugo do. There was no time for that. And besides, Bart did not need Herman to be calm. He needed him to get control. The queerest idea struck Bart at that thought. There was no time for another, however; the wolf was only a step away from the two of them.

Bart hastily threw his clothes over the fence and hopped onto it, using it as a makeshift ladder to get to Herman’s high back. He reached out for the horse’s charcoal manes. Seeing their dark colour clashed with the light dapple fur underneath, it should’ve been easy to grasp them, but Herman moved so erratically that Bart missed twice. On the third attempt, he got hold of a handful of hair. He held on tight and flung himself onto Herman’s back in one less than smooth swing.

The impact of the landing shot a spasm of pain throughout Bart’s body, his lower half in particular. Herman was as affected as he would’ve been by a fly. He’d been in the middle of a buck when Bart landed on his back, and he was determined to end it. He threw his hind legs back and his head forwards. Bart had to clamp his feet under the horse’s belly not to be flung right off. Even though Herman’s coat was slippery with sheep’s blood, he managed. Bart wanted to close his eyes, yet he couldn’t. The wolf raised his claws and was about to lash at Herman’s uncovered head.

Bart jerked the horse’s manes to his chest and shouted, ‘HERMAN, HEAD UP, NOW!’

Herman followed up the order in a flash. Two of the wolf’s claws cut through the horse’s chest, drawing blood. However, Bart considered it a success; had Herman acted a second later, he would’ve lost an eye, at least.

The wolf let out a frustrated growl. Then he cussed as Herman threw his front hooves up at Bart’s bleating command. The heavy horseshoes struck at the wolf like a berserker’s axes raining down upon his defenceless victim. The wolf arced back, out of reach, but with a wall against his back.

Now that the wolf was standing at his full height, he came eye to eye with Bart, despite Herman’s added height. Bart tried not to think of it too much as he directed his still staggering horse companion towards the beast. He didn’t get the chance for a second attack, however. Through all the turmoil of the clamorous cattle around him, Bart’s keen ears caught the sound of barks and rushing footsteps. The farmer’s family was here. All Bart’s attention turned towards the barn’s door. His instinct lulled his racing heart into dormancy, for it told him all would be fine now that his protectors had arrived. They would get rid of the wolf.

It was a beautiful deception — one proven very much wrong as the wolf unexpectedly dashed towards Herman’s neck. Bert heard Herman’s shriek before he could see what had passed. And, before he could do anything about it, Hugo and his son, David, appeared at the barn door opening. Olivia and the oldest child, Thea, stood behind them. Hugo ordered them to leave the moment the light of his lantern touched the bloody scene by the sheep pens. Neither moved. All eyes followed the dim lantern light as it travelled towards Bart, Herman and the wolf.

Bart saw the scene for a split second as the farmer’s family would. A naked, strange man on their horse’s back — their only loyal, trusted, beloved horse- dying between the jaws of an infernal wolf. Bart thought of the tales from the bible he’s heard come from the farmer’s house, all the threats of sins, wickedness and devilry and all the horrible ways to counter it.

It was then that Bart realised that, no, the farmer’s family would not make it okay. Herman couldn’t protect him either — none of the other animals could. Nor could his little pen, where he’d always slept safely and comfortably with his sister. It was he, Bartholomew, who had to protect himself now — had to protect the others. However, his instincts wisely reminded him, not now — too much danger. 

Bart agreed, swung his right leg over Herman’s neck, and slid off his back to the other side, merely escaping the lantern light. The sound of his feet was too soft to be heard by a human ear. The wolf didn’t notice either. And how could he have, over the direful cried of the dying horse between his teeth? Herman struggled against the wolf’s grasp with all his might, yet it was a lost battle. Before Bart ran away to get his clothes and hide in the haystack at the end of the barn, he looked back at Herman. The horse’s once pale eyes were dull. All his everlasting vigour ebbed away in the pool of blood growing underneath him. He slanted forwards and fell upon the wolf.

Herman couldn’t have chosen that his body would pin the wolf down long enough to keep him from following Bart and distracting the farmer’s family. In all likelihood, none of the horse’s heroic actions that night had been for him to decide. He’d just been a slave to his instincts and, for a few seconds, to Bart. Bart rather not like to think about it in such a way. He preferred to believe that Herman had done all that out of kindness. It was a strangely human thought, and Bart held it close as he hid behind the hay and watched Hugo and David drive the wolf from under Herman’s carcass by pricking him with their pitchforks.

The wolf was exhausted and crawled up on all fours. Still, he took his time peering around the stable to see if his skin stealer was still there. The pointy tines of the pitchforks were just beestings to him. For a moment, it appeared as if he might lash out at the farmer out of frustration for being unable to spot Bart. Then he thought better, perhaps realised he’d need his strength for later, and took off.

Hugo and David ran after the wolf for a while. Bart could hear them shout all the way to the woods, where the two decided to turn back to the farm. There Olivia and Thea were waiting for them. They knelt next to Herman’s lifeless body. Bart didn’t want to see it. He just listened whilst trying not actually to listen, either. All he wanted to hear now was for them to leave. He didn’t want their words of sadness over their dead horse and sheep to break his heart. Bart needed it for when he was to face the wolf again.


An emergency meeting had been arranged at the castle by the village.

The attendants were Lord Thomas, who ruled the village, and Baron Gilbert, who ruled over him and the city. And then there was the new village’s Priest, Andreas, who ruled over nothing, yet had a say in everything. But today, that was for a valid reason; his predecessor, priest Benjamin, had been murdered no less than two days prior.

Benjamin’s son, Richard, had been considered to take on his father’s role first. However, he was only sixteen years of age and, worse, an illegitimate child. He’d also been reduced to a deacon and choir boy for the local church after being kicked out of the Saint Francis monastery he’d been sent to by his father. Richard had received harsh punishment from the Almighty for his sins and his father’s lately. Disease had struck him, and the shame had kept him looking up in his room. That only left the priest’s former assistant, Andreas, as a candidate. And he, too, was less than ideal.

‘This has gone too far,’ Andreas mouthed from his dry lips. He was ten years his predecessor’s major and so disgustingly skinny he could make Death Himself feel plump. God had also bestowed upon him the natural charm of a leper.  

‘It has surpassed all that is natural and normal,’ Lord Thomas agreed, despite contrasting the Priest in every other way. The man had a turnip for a nose and tomatoes instead of cheeks. His girth was no less small than a bull’s, and most of it was muscle. 

Baron Gilbert sighed. Only a few words could escape the dense forest of moustache and beard that covered his face. ‘It’s the Devil’s doing.’

Lord Thomas nodded, his cheeks wobbling like a pudding. He always had to agree with the baron or increase the likeability of losing his head, but this time, he was genuine. ‘Many wolves have wandered my lands,’ he said, ‘but never has one walked up a second storey to kill a priest in a bathtub.’

The words were dire and accurate; at the crimson dawn of morning, Priest Benjamin had been found dead by his servant. The servant had only left a few seconds to warm more water by the kitchen’s stove for his master’s tub. Upon his return, he discovered it had been unnecessary; the bath was boiling red with blood. According to the servant’s account, he only saw a sharp-toothed and shady shape stand on the windowsill before submerging with the shadows outside.

Word spread quickly, like the blood in the bathtub. Lord Thomas was informed, then-not-yet-Priest Andreas was appointed to his current position, and Baron Gilbert got summoned. Now the three men sat around the grand table of Lord Thomas’s less-than-grand hall, pondering, staring at the fire where a pig as giant as the lord was turned around and round by a spit dog running a wheel. The poor thing was cooked-through. The pig, however, still needed a while.

‘I suppose you tried to hunt it?’ priest Andreas asked Lord Thomas. ‘The wolf?’

‘To no avail. The beast has more wickedness and wit in one of its wolfish toes than a harlot has in her whole body,’ the lord said, and no one laughed. Then, sternly, he added, ‘At day, it’s nowhere to be found. At night, it appears to be everywhere.’

‘Aha!’ priest Andreas clapped his cadaverous hands together, grinning like a corpse in rigour mortis. ‘Then, my lords, I might know what this wolf is… Not a wolf!

‘Not always a wolf, at least,’ the priest added upon seeing his overlords at a loss. ‘This is a man who gave his soul and made it with Satan. I’ve read of such atrocities in books from Roman times, accounts about the barbarians, and more. In these tales, men learned to take off their human skin, and the Devil will gift them with fur, teeth and claws underneath, making their humanity no more than a disguise for the beast they’ve become.

‘The poor souls of old didn’t yet know this cost them their souls. However, this man does. He must. He is vicious; he has no soul, mercy, or love for his Creator. He must die, lest we wish him to kill more. Or worse, others will be tempted by his power and wish to join the Devil’s leagues.’

‘But who is this… Wolf-man?’ Lord Thomas said sceptically.

‘Anyone… yet I might’ve some suspicions.’

‘Who?’ Lord Thomas and Baron Gilbert exchanged looks that said, is it you? Thomas was as brawny as a beast, after all. And didn’t Gilbert have an unreasonably long beard? 

‘Who,’ Priest Andreas echoed, ‘showed up when the first cow got their throat between the beast’s teeth?’

Lord Thomas had to admit he didn’t know. Having to govern an entire city, Baron Gilbert had other matters than some dead cattle to worry about.

‘But who,’ Priest Adreas continued, unfazed, ‘came around when the wolf snatched the first toddler at the village’s edge so cheekily?’

‘It was at the festival!’ Lord Thomas exclaimed. ‘Earlier reports of vanishing farmers reached me before, but such things just happen.’

‘And who was there at the festival?’

‘Many came from far and wide.’

‘But one stayed — the one who came with the gypsies. I’ve been told, my lords, that he danced with a bear. I’ve heard, my lords, that he can’t talk; he only makes bestial sounds. I’ve wondered, my lords, why he never stays in the village for the night.

‘And I saw him, my lords, last sermon, together with Priest Benjamin.’

Chapter 4: Innocent

Bart was haunted by the stench of blood all night. He stayed hidden as the farmer’s family had hauled Herman’s body to the butcher shed next to the barn. The two black sheep were brought there as well.

The meat would raise the farmer’s family, but as they dragged their dead beasts out on a cart, that didn’t seem to be on their mind — nor on that of their remaining animals. All the other farms in the area could hear their clucking, mooing and bleating. Had the humans understood the cries of the cattle, all would’ve heard of the wolf and who’d brought the beast’s wrath upon them; Bart. Occasionally Sofie tried to hush down the accusations with a desperate bark. However, being a hound, it didn’t take long before she also picked up the chant.

 Thus, when the farmer’s family finally retreated to the slaughter shack to make food out of former friends, Bart left the barn. He hadn’t told his sister why. He just didn’t know what else to do, where else to go. So he walked to the village.

The way was not too hot or cold, but heavy rain made it unbearable, nonetheless. Bart’s clothes were soaked. He didn’t doubt that the water had seeped through his human skin and into his goat coat.

Bart could empathise with the weather, but it merely brought him more misery and no idea what to do about his vexations. Neither Herman’s nor the sheep’s deaths were on his mind. Being a beast of prey plagues one with that apathy. He was mainly considering how to remove his tormenter from his and his sister’s life. Regrettably, Bart had only studied the more gentle aspects of human life lately. Had he known of poisons, he might have noticed that more trouble was charging his way.

Suddenly a band of horsemen cut through the curtain of rain. Their garbs were similar, but their colours varied from gold and marine to cruddy canary and bleached blue. All bore swords.

The man who led the party was as big as a bear and rode atop a stallion struggling for air. He brought the beast to a halt with a brief gesture of his beefy hand. He looked at Bart. He started down on him like a hunting hound, finally facing his fox.


This time, Bart didn’t need his sister to tell him to make a run for it. He turned his hidden tail and headed for the nearby houses. He took twists and turns, saw loam flash by, brick replace it, then straw. Over and over again. The stamping of the horses’ hooves through the drenched passages followed close behind. Though they couldn’t canter through the narrow alleys to chase Bart directly, they kept near, circling the buildings like ravenous ravens waiting for a hanged man’s last breath.

It was a matter of time before Bart had trouble breathing. His steps grew fewer per heartbeat. It felt as if he was drowning in the way a fish might experience it on land. Slowly, Bart came to a stumbling halt behind a loam house. He set his hand against the cold, slippery wall.

The place wasn’t as clean as most of the more populated areas at the village’s centre and for a good reason. A pig was poking its snout through the muck, occasionally adding something to it. It was a sow, Bart deducted. ‘Excuse me,’ he panted, ‘Miss Pig —’

‘Squeeee!’ the sow squealed in shock.

‘Shhhhh!’ Bart raised his finger to his lips, but it was too late already. The horsemen had gotten track of him. Neighing and shouting noises drew closer.

‘I’m sorry to scare you, miss,’ Bart whispered, ‘but I need your help. Could you distract—’

‘Oi!’ the sow snorted. ‘First, you scare the mud off me, and now you want me to help you? Unroot your own issues, you, you, whatever you are, you queer thing.’

‘Please, miss, if they get me…’ I don’t know what will happen if they get me, Bart realised. Whatever it might be, it wouldn’t be too far-fetched to assume that the knights didn’t intend to use their swords for a juggling contest like the one Bart had spotted on the market earlier.

‘And what do you think will happen to me? I’ll be bacon!’ the sow squeaked, seemingly oblivious to the nearing riders. Bart couldn’t see them yet, but his sharp animal ears told him most were coming from his left. Two approached from behind. A wall was ahead, so one came from there, lest the steeds had sprouted wings. Only the right way was free of any obstacles. And, therefore, the most obvious direction for the horsemen to follow Bart.  

‘I. Just. Need. A. Distraction.’ Bart said to no one in particular except, perhaps, the sow. Then, he did something he regretted even before doing it. He kicked the pig’s rear with one swift swing of his heeled boot, sending her into a frenzy. The sow staggered, squealed and splashed soil all over Bart’s clothes. Then she ran right into the big company coming from the left. It fell into disarray, and the two horsemen from behind who’d just caught up with Bart turned towards the rest to see what was going on. Bart got a glimpse of their blue and yellow uniforms before running off to safety.

Bart reached the edge of the village, not far from the farm, when he stopped once more. He’d run out of breath again and couldn’t go home. However, he couldn’t stay in the village either. Predators who were out for his blood appeared to be everywhere. And unknownst to Bart, he was being watched by a yet unfamiliar hunter.

A single eye peered at him from a shrivelled shrub. Its iris bore the colour of old gold and had a needle-thin pupil darker than ink. It followed Bart’s every move. The one the eye belonged to revealed itself shortly after.

‘What are you doing here?’

Bart hastily looked around, left, right, up and down. At his feet sat a cat — or at least something that once had been a cat. It was an unbelievably ugly, raggedy, tabby tom. The left side of his face was so scarred it had gone both bald and blind. The only reason it still had two ears was thanks to the thread of flesh that kept its torn one to his skull.

If any cat had spent his seven lives, it was this one. Still breathing hard, Bart didn’t doubt that the feline fiend might have more. Were it the demon it appeared to be, even Satan would kick it out of Hell because even he couldn’t stand the sight of it.

‘You stink,’ the tomcat hissed and licked its pale pink nose as if to wash the smell away.

 ‘I’m aware, but thank you for pointing it out,’ Bart wheezed. ‘I’m currently in just as much trouble as reeking rags, though. I’m Bartholomew, a pleasure to meet you, Master Cat, and I’m—’ Bart drew a breath so deeply he was sure he sucked his lungs up into his windpipe.


‘Yes,’ Bart gasped.

‘No,’ the repelling tomcat said. ‘That’s my name: Innocent.’

‘My,’ Bart yammered. ‘I wish to be found innocent, and instead, I find you, Innocent. You see, I’m being hunted by a beast most bizarre, and coincidently, I’m hunted too by men who blame me for this being’s misdeeds.’

‘You’re “being hunted”?’ Innocent cocked his half-bald head a few whiskers beyond that which was natural. ‘Just a moment ago, you were “Bartholomew”.’

‘This is not helping.’ Bart sank through his knees, into the mud. He buried his human face in his human hands, fearing he couldn’t keep them any longer. He couldn’t cry, though. Goats can’t, but Bart wanted to, just to make him feel a bit more human for perhaps one last moment. He removed his broad-brimmed hat and let the drizzle fill his face. Cold tears streamed down his cheeks. 

‘This isn’t helping.’ Innocent stretched his bedraggled body in a way only a cat could — careless, as if he had all the time in the world. ‘But I can help you.’    


Innocent stretched out even further until his ribs and spine seemingly pierced through his pelt and then folded back up into a bony crouched ball. ‘Follow me,’ he said and leapt away. 

Bart and Innocent crossed half the village, dodging the horsemen on every occasion, thanks to the joint effort of Innocent’s keen sight and Bart’s sharp hearing. Neither spoke in words, just gestures. Then, at a particularly well-kept house, Innocent said, ‘Wait here.’ He hopped on a rock by the door. From there, he jumped to the sole stone sticking from the wall and made his way to the windowsill. He slipped inside through the shutter. A moment later, the walnut wood front door opened cautiously, like a moth unfolding its wings. 

Bart stood still for a moment. All of this felt wrong. Though Innocent was but a small predator, his scent, which had polluted the entire house, raised the hairs on Bart’s neck. His oldest instincts told him to leave.

Innocent, however, invited him in. When Bart still didn’t budge, the tabby tom added, ‘Master Goat, I bid you to come here as my guest, and as you are my guest, I promise you that no harm shall come to you in my house. It is a human rule I find preferable and shalln’t break.’

Bart found enough comfort in that promise to enter. He remained on guard, though he forgot it when he closed the door behind him and realised he’d never seen a house from the inside. He wondered if all were like this one. Sofie had told of the farmhouse’s interior, but that were mainly her sweet spots; the warm tiles by the hearth, under the table where the family occasionally shared their food with her, and the soft blankets on her masters’ beds.

Apparently, humans needed more than just that. The room Innocent led Bart to proved as much. Its walls were invisible, hidden behind maps of constellations Bart had seen many times in the sky and maps with many lines and names he couldn’t read. The rest of the room was made up of closets and cases rather than walls. They were filled with jars of questionable contents; live leeches lurked in one; a dozen detached eyes stared down at Bart from another. And everything was spotless.

There were books beyond counting, too many for this single room to hold. They barely left space for the lonely writing desk of an island Innocent gestured for Bart to take place at.  

‘How did you learn it?’ the tomcat asked.

‘Learn what?’ Bart asked as he awkwardly tried to cram himself between the too-low desk and the too-many mountains of manuscripts.

‘The speak of the beast. My master — who is as old as his beard is long — has tried to acquire it his whole life, yet his vocabulary is still disappointingly limited to “friend” and “cat”. Never a witch spoke it so sublimely, except the great Witch Sisters, but alas, they were burned as tend to happen.’

A witch…? Burned?’ Bart stammered. ‘My apologies, Master Innocent, but you’re mistaken.’

Innocent narrowed his only eye. ‘Not… and what about your mark? The witch mark on your forehead. If the church were to find that, they’d burn you, probably just for having it. Your human muteness and current situation will not help, I fear.’

Bart unconsciously touched the spot on his skin and swallowed. ‘It’s no “witch mark”, for I can’t be a witch because I am not a human…’

‘Well,’ Innocent said, ‘beasts can do magic too. Not the Devil’s, though; that is true. But please, do tell.’

‘It’s a long story.’ Bart sighed. Then, he told Innocent everything. 

‘How anomalous.’ Innocent twirled his whiskers. ‘How fascinating…’

Bart waited for the tabby tom to continue. When that didn’t happen, he said, ‘So, you see, Master Innocent, the state of affairs I’m in is rather wretched,’ Bart thought, plucking at the dog ears of a book. ‘And, if my human pursuers are after me for this witch mark as well, I suppose I’m no better off fleeing this place altogether, but…’ 

And even if, Bart thought. I wouldn’t want to.

‘But?’ Innocent perked his ragged ears. ‘ I sense some doubt there, Master Goat, and I must confess I myself have some of that too. Though you know more of men than men often know of themselves, some things have passed your secretly pointy ears.

‘Correct me if I’m wrong, but, when you found the skin you now walk in, the wolf found you, didn’t he?’

‘It’s true.’

‘He is not your tormenter exclusively. A robin redbreast informed me that the beast murdered the Priest in his own house before I bit its pretty feathery head off.’ Innocent paused to lick his lips, relishing the taste of the poor bird. Then, at his own leisure, he informed Bart how the village had fared under the wolf’s torment and that he, Bart, had inadvertently stopped the beast from ever becoming its human self again. ‘That man dealt with the Devil for his power,’ Innocent said. ‘Dealing with another horned beast won’t be an issue for him. And until he ceases his chase, Lord Thomas and his entourage won’t stop wanting to hunt you down.’    

At that exact moment, Bart realised he was, as Misses Sow had put it so poetically earlier, bacon. Against everything in his nature, he only saw one option left; kill the seemingly unkillable wolf. But then, what about the village who’d turned against him? Was he just to go back to being a boring billy goat until Hugo decided he and his sister had no other use than to be put in a pie?

A fury foreign to Bart crackled inside his chest, scaled up his neck and blew up in his head. He slammed his human fist into the writing desk, leaving a dent from the goat hoof inside. He rose. Just in time, Innocent could stop him from throwing thousand-year-old tomes all over the room. Wildly, Bart went for the world map-covered walls instead, banging his head against them repeatedly, crying out in frustration and desperation. ‘Dolt!’ he cursed himself between the knocks. ‘Mooncalf! Ninny! Jackass!’

Innocent remained impossibly unruffled throughout. He washed his paws and cleaned the regions of his body only cats can reach. Once the burning inside Bart finally faded and the wall was ready for an additional window, he said, ‘Like I might’ve mentioned already, I can help. I’ll help you find the wolf, and I’ll help you regain your innocence with the people, but first, I’ll have to help you to speak human. I’d just like one thing in return.’

‘What?’ Bart squealed. He’d already warn out his goat voice. How was he ever going to get a human one? ‘What do you want in return?’  

‘Not much. Just… your hands.’

‘My what?!’

‘Your hands,’ Innocent replied.  

Bart was lost for words. The few he could put together in more or less sense-making sentences were: ‘And what would a cat like you do with a pair of hands? You want to write?’

‘I can write already, gruelling as it might be.’ Innocent paused, peering at his paws in a manner Bart had previously thought impossible for the feline. Innocent looked abashed. ‘It’s quite shameful,’ he admitted, ‘but I’d like to play cards with my Master. He is an old and lonely man, you see, Master Goat and all he can do with his cards is read them. I fancy he’d enjoy a game of Knave and Fool from time to time.

‘Oh, and don’t worry about him now,’ the tabby tomcat added. ‘My Master is a witch in secret and is a rather sought-after doctor, though not a witch doctor. Such would be the death of him and me. His name is known even in the city, where he currently cures his customers. My Master’s house is mine for the time being, as it will be yours.’

The village was already more than Bart could’ve ever imagined. The mere mention of the city made his head dizzy.

‘So… my hands,’ Bart stammered.

‘Just a snip of scissors, and you’ll be able to pull them off like a pair of gloves, and I’ll be able to wear them as such. It won’t hurt. The hole you made in the wall proved that.’

Bart considered. He considered what would’ve happened had he not gone to the village today. He thought about how things might’ve gone if he hadn’t wanted to get a lick of human life. And, most of all, he considered where he’d be if he had left the skin where he found it. In the same position as he had been if he hadn’t; high up on Death’s list, only then there would’ve been nothing he could do about it aside from wait. His hide, however, had given him an opportunity to get out. Handing over his hands would be a scant price to pay to save both his skins. 

 ‘Alright,’ Bart said. ‘However, you only asked for one thing, so one hand is all you’ll get.’

‘That seems fair,’ Innocent declared, not altogether disappointedly. ‘But I do want to choose which one. The right, please.’

‘Deal.’ They shook hand and paw on it.

Innocent’s one old gold eye glistered so brightly it looked like molten metal. ‘Excellent,’ he purred and let go. He skipped from the desk onto the nearest bookcase, setting his claws into multiple ancient covers just to climb to the upper shelf. There, the tabby tom eyed each book as if spying for mice. ‘No,’ he muttered to himself. It could’ve passed for a ‘meow’ to an unobservant ear. ‘No, no, no, no— yessssssss!’

It came out as a triumphant hiss. Bart knew better than to ask if Innocent had found what he’d been looking for. Any idle doubt he might’ve left was brought to nought by the thick tome the tomcat chucked down at him. Innocent gave him no instructions on whether to catch it or to get out of its way, and Bart, with his natural desire to disappear, stepped swiftly aside.

The book missed him at less than a horseshoe’s length, but the second title to come down hit Bart on the head. It hurt less than a little, seeing Bart’s otherwise crescent horns turned into a natural helmet under his second skin whenever he put it on.

‘Let’s see,’ Innocent said, still high and mighty on the upper shelf. He peered at the pages of the second book he sent down. After hitting Bart’s head, it had fallen open on the right page like magic. It didn’t surprise Bart anymore.

‘No ingredients that we seem to miss,’ Innocent declared, but before Bart could feel anything close to relieved, he added, ‘Except… We have no wax. We have no honey.’

‘What do we need that for?’ Bart asked though he had no idea what they’d need any of the ingredients for. He might not be able to read them, yet at a glance, he could already conclude that the list was at least twenty items long.

‘Wax,’ Innocent said. ‘With just a tickle of magic, it can replace skin and flesh, be it temporary. We need it to attach a new tongue to yours.’

‘A new… tongue?’

‘Yes,  a new, human, tongue,’ Innocent affirmed. He gestured at a jar below him. Bart had thought they were… he’d had no clue, actually, but as it turned out, they were tongues — human tongues. Alright.

 ‘Because think, Master Goat’, Innocent went on, ‘your wolf was only given a bestial skin by the Prince of Darkness, yet not the speech of an animal. The same goes for you, be it the other way around. So, I say, I’ll stitch a new tongue in your mouth to suit the rest of your new hide. And, thus, we’ll need honey too, to heal the hurt that will follow the… procedure.’

‘Will it hurt?’ Bart stammered, unable to believe his ever-so-reliable ears. ‘And, will it work?’

‘Like a charm. My master executed many such operations, though usually with other limps. He ought to have the tools he used around here somewhere, along with all required ointments. And, yes, the pain will be akin to the Devil Himself doing a dance in red-hot iron shoes in your mouth. I’ve seen my master d But don’t worry Master Goat, it won’t take long. And I won’t take long to get the final ingredients either.’ And without warning, without a goodbye, the tabby tom jumped from the bookcase and darted out of the room. Bart heard the shutter shut before he could take a step. The cat Innocent was gone, and he was all alone.

Chapter 5: We Have To Talk

Seconds, minutes, hours seeped away in the hourglass Bart had found in the study. He’d reset it so many times he couldn’t recall the count. Innocent hadn’t returned yet. By now, it was too dark to distinguish one grain of sand from the other. All Bart found piling up were his nerves. And yet, his head began to bob after a while, drowsy from the long day.

Bart lay down and made himself at home in a pile of papers on the floor. It wasn’t cosy or even agreeable, and Bart was quite sure that the parchment and papyrus were never intended to be slept on, but he didn’t know if he was supposed to wander around the other rooms either.

Bart pulled his hat over his head, both to block the alarming feline odour of Innocent and the last bit of light in the room. His breath began to slow as he thought of the not-wolf wolf, the shabby tabby tom, his sister, and his hands. Slowly, he fell asleep, though serene he wasn’t. Bart’s eyelids kept quivering like leaves in a storm. He threaded the thinly sprung line that hung between dream and reality and constantly swayed between the two.

Bart dreamed his human skin was turning against him. It tingled, itched, and burned as if he were swimming in nettles. And, though he could no longer tell if his eyes were open or closed, what he saw was as lucid as life. A fire, burning at his feet, swallowing his half-hoof, half-legs as a snake devours a dead dormouse. Chants of unreasonable accusations flew around in his head. Bart couldn’t counter them; it felt as if his tongue was tied around his neck like a rope. The flames licked up his legs, reaching for his hips and chest, tearing through his homemade clothes. All the while, he kept hearing, ‘Witch! Witch! Witch!’

Bart shot up. His eyes flew open, and for an impossibly short moment, he woke up at the sight of the Devil sitting on his chest. Then, the demon was gone.

Bart was covered in roaches. He felt their tickly legs everywhere, from his armpits to his pores to places he never spoke of. Bart screamed, high and loud, as only a goat can. Terrified, he slapped every spot of his body like a madman, yelping, ‘Get off me! GET OFF ME!’

The roaches seemed to listen. Like a blanket slipping off in sleep, they slid away. Some vanished behind the bookcases. Others retreated through the floor, and the few left ran ahead of Bart. There was Innocent. The tabby tom looked down at him. His tail twitched, producing the rather unpleasant sound of snapping joints at every move.

‘How long have you been sitting there?’ Bart asked.

‘Long enough to see you almost crush my housekeepers.’

One of the roaches raised two of its six legs as if to show Bart two non-existing clenched fists. It chirped angrily.

‘Oh,’ said Bart, astonished that there were still things that could astonish him. ‘I’m sorry then,’ he addressed the raving roach, ‘for almost accidentally ending the lives of your fellows.’

The roach set his four arms on its shelled sides. It twittered again. Once more, it was too soft for Bart to hear. Even Innocent had to lean in to listen. ‘What do you say?’ the cat said. Then, to Bart. ‘They were wondering if you were a witch as well.’

‘No,’ replied Bart resolutely. He hadn’t even considered the possibility, seeing animals had no soul they could sell to the Devil — or so humans said.

‘They think otherwise,’ Innocent interrupted, and the roaches nodded. ‘But we have no time for such trivialities now, Master Goat. Not only have I returned as the deliverer of ingredients; I’ve also come back as the harbinger of bad news.’

‘How so?’ Bart asked. He was beginning to irritate himself to Innocent’s ‘Master Goat’s’ but was too curious and bothered to bring it up now. ‘Couldn’t you get all the ingredients?’

‘I did,’ Innocent said. ‘But the man I got them from got our wolf’s teeth in his throat.’

The first light of day crawled into the room by the time Innocent had detailed his discoveries. He’d found the village’s beekeeper dead next to his hives. Some of the bees he’d managed his whole life had already started to take care of his remains. Still, his chewed-through neck had been hard to miss, and none of the bees dared to suggest anything else than a wolf had done it.

‘Regrettably, one of the bees knew why,’ the tabby tomcat said. ‘But they are not most… creative of thinkers, and if you were to ask me, I’d say that our not-wolf is getting desperate. Though he might be a man, he’s starting to lash out like a cornered beast. He’s turning the village upside down when he can, in the dark of the night, to get a hold of you now that he can‘t find you at your farm. I suggest we try to track him whilst it’s still day, expose him to the village for all to see.’

Innocent picked up a patch of fur that Bart had previously regarded as a hairball rather than something significant. ‘And track him, we shall,’ Innocent said, ‘with this. I must admit I’ve no prior experience with a goat’s skills in smell, but surely they are serviceable enough to track a wolf with just a whiff of its fur?’

‘They’re not,’ Bart said shortly.

‘Let us let that trouble wait for later. We may find our pretended wolf anywhere. However, I can only find a voice for you here.’

Innocent was on the top shelf before Bart knew it. Lazily, he swiped off a small pouch that smelled of mint. It emitted a subdued thud when it hit the floor. A much louder smack followed as a pair of heavy copper pliers landed. Then, Bart saw that Innocent’s next ingredient was in a wooden chest the size of a fist, adorned with jewellery beautiful beyond comprehension. Innocent sent it flying without a second thought.

Bart reached for the box as if trying to catch an infant falling from a tower. He closed his eyes, horrified, and kept them closed until he felt the reassuring weight of the little box in his hands and stroked all six sides to make sure it was alright. When he opened his eyes again, he was looking up at Innocent. ‘You could’ve asked me to help you to get it!’

‘Now, Master Goat,’ Innocent said undisturbed, ‘then hereby, I will. Catch!’

Incredibly slowly yet too fast, the tabby tom pushed a jar off the shelf with both front paws. It was the jar with the human tongues. In a rash attempt to catch the jar, Bart launched forward, dropped the wooden box and stepped on it. Gem and wood cracked under his boot. No glass shattered, but had it, Bart wouldn’t have been able to perceive it through the pumping of his heart. He lay outstretched on the floor. Wide-eyed, he stared into a distorted reflection of himself swimming in a jar of tongues.

‘Let me know if there’s one you’d fancy,’ Innocent announced from above. He threw down the last remaining requirement for the ritual; a couple of leather belts. Bart didn’t try to catch them. The belts dropped on his back. Innocent soundlessly landed beside him, and Bart held them up, concerned. When he found his current tongue back, he asked the tabby tom, ‘What do we need those for?’

‘I warned you.’ Innocent took the straps between his teeth and lisped through the leather, ‘Ith vill hurt.’ Then, he told Bart to take place in the chair.

It took some binding and more brewing, but Bart and Innocent were ready for the ritual. The first was sweating substantially, spreading an invasive, hircine smell through the room — much to the latter’s distaste.

Only the concoction Innocent was creating expelled the goatish stench. The tabby tom made no mention of it, though. Firstly, goat sweat was a precious ingredient he wished not to go to waste. Secondly, he could imagine himself quite nervous too in a similar situation.

Bart’s wrists and lower legs were bound to the chair. The leather was tight on his second and even his own skin, yet not altogether uncomfortable. Quite the contrary, it brought some sort of twisted tranquillity upon him, akin to the one he felt at home where he was safely between fences and stable doors. 

The pliers, sewing kit and knife on the desk before him didn’t comfort Bart. The kit came from the broken box, but the blade, Bart couldn’t tell. Innocent had probably gotten in when he hadn’t been watching, or the tomcat had conjured it out of the air. Either option was equally possible.

Bart peered at the knife. Its blade seemed to be all colours but the shade of iron. He bit his tongue to get a taste of what would happen. ‘So, Master Innocent,’ Bart uttered, ‘by the set-up of this procedure, I presume this will be a permanent change.’

‘You have keen eyes for a goat, Master Goat,’ Innocent replied, binding a pouch with ingredients around his neck. Again Bart didn’t argue with the nickname. Getting into an argument over such a trivial thing whilst being tied to a chair when the other possessed a wide arrange of troublesome tools was never a good idea.

‘So, have you chosen tongue yet?’ Innocent asked as he cumbersomely twisted the lid of the tongue jar. It opened with a loud plop and smell that almost made Bart faint. Innocent remained as smart as ever. He lowered a paw into the jar and scooped up a tongue as if it were a fish. ‘Personally,’ he purred, ‘I’d advise this one. It’s from a young thief who got hanged after he had no more fingers to cut off, so it’s in a good state.’

‘That one’s just fine, then.’

Innocent nodded and put the tongue in the pouch around his neck. Then he picked up the pliers with one paw and the knife between his teeth. Bart’s ancient impulse to flee began to kick in again. But he couldn’t afford it now, he knew. He clenched his hands into fists so tightly that the hooves under his skin almost pushed through. ‘But… will other animals still understand me?’

‘Do you understand human?’ Innocent said, and he ordered Bart to stick out his tongue.

‘Yes, but—’ Bart wanted to object, but it was too late. His tongue was trapped between the pliers’ jaws. It was unlike anything he’d ever felt before. The copper of the pliers was hot, burning hot, yet it didn’t hurt. They pulled his tongue as far out as possible, perhaps even beyond that. He couldn’t speak anymore. He struggled, for every muscle in his body told him to do so. Neither the plier nor the cat let go. 

‘Well, then,’ Innocent muttered. Bart could just see the kaleidoscopic knife flash between his teeth. Then it was gone. The grip of the pliers ceased too. Everything went silent. Bart let his tongue run past his teeth to measure the damage done. It was only then that he comprehended that he had no tongue anymore.

Instantaneously, a spurt of blood erupted in Bart’s mouth. It ran right back down his throat, choking him and forcing him to throw up. Blood and half-digested remains of meals splattered onto Bart’s lap. Innocent could just dodge it, holding the goat tongue up high so as not to taint it. Swiftly, he laid it aside to get the new tongue and the sewing kit from his pouch.

Bart currently couldn’t care any less. He was soaked in gore. Everything in front of his eyes went red. He felt blood rising again and knew he would spew it out all over again when suddenly, Innocent pushed his head back. It was a strangely gentle gesture. Just as tenderly, the tabby tom’s paw brushed Bart’s face and opened his mouth. It felt for the little bit of flesh that was left of his tongue. Far, far off, Bart could faintly hear Innocent sing a hymn as soft and sweet as a lullaby.    

‘Make it melt, move in his maw,

Mend the muscle, modify every molar,

Move out the mute, now.’

 The hurt lessened. Bart only felt little tugs as Innocent stitched up his new tongue. He rested his head on the back of his chair, almost enjoying the rhythmic movement. Every once in a while, Innocent would stroke his hair aside when it got in the way of his work or wanted to check if his patient was still faring well. He coldly, yet assuredly, told Bart he was doing a great job.

Then the wax came. It was heated up to a boiling point. By now, it was more of a runny paste. Innocent applied all of it to Bart’s new tongue. It stung like the bees that made it but tasted heavenly after the bloody mess that started to dry in Bart’s throat, and like a complementary angel, Innocent sang the last part of his spell:

‘Strengthen the sinew so that he can call her,

Speak, say and share he shall,

Sentences shall roll from his speaking canal.’

Bart felt whole again, more so than he ever had. He breathed in and out deeply, tasting the hurt, relishing the satisfaction, knowing it was over. Then he passed out.

When Bart came to, his straps were loose. His right hand was gone. It resembled the hoof it was. Bart blinked wearily. His eyes met Innocent’s single one.

‘Here,’ the tabby tom hushed like someone who’d for the first time in his life heard of the meaning of the word ‘empathy’. He held out a spoonful of honey and mint with the hand that previously had been Bart’s. ‘To ease the pain.’

‘Th-thank y-y-you,’ Bart muttered. The words were, despite being muted by the blob of blood in this throat, unquestionably, human.

Bart liked his new voice. It was crisp, though somewhat tremulous — quite unlike the smooth brew of honey and mint he scooped up until he felt so full he expected his second skin to burst. The throbbing of his tongue dimmed at every taste. Its movement was awkward still, though not as tricky as trying to hold a bowl of honey in one hoof while scraping up the last drops with a human hand that lacked any experience with a spoon. 

Bart gave up on the last bits of minted honey and set the bowl away. With the closest a goat could come to envy, he watched the cat Innocent order his army of roaches around to clean up the mess. He held a twig in his new human hand, waving it around like a wizard calling upon the spirits of old. His crooked teeth formed a fiendish grin as he did so.

In a time that was a roach’s hour and a cat’s and goat’s minute, the room was as tidy as before. Sheets of paper still covered the floor like autumn leaves, yes, but even a hunting hound wouldn’t be able to track down a single speck of gore. The roaches had made short work of that in the way they tend to do; by eating it.  

‘I considered what you said about tracking the wolf down, Master Innocent,’ Bart began. He kneaded his throat with his human hand, for the words came out croaky. ‘And, I know someone who’d be able to assist us. If she’s willing is another thing, but able, yes, of that I’m sure.’

Innocent’s half-torn-off ear twitched. ‘And what is “she”?’

Bart realised he’d made a mistake. He meant the dog, Sofie, of course, yet for a moment had forgotten that the cat Innocent could have some objection against asking a hound for help. Still, Bart wanted to remain honest with his new… associate. His tongue thought otherwise; it decided to coil until it got caught. ‘A friend of mine,’ Bart replied. ‘From back home, from the farm.’

‘I figured. But. What. Is. She?’

‘She’s nice. I’m sure you’ll like her. She also wanted to go after me when I went into the woods and found the skin to ensure I was safe. Wouldn’t I’ve been, I’m sure she would’ve given her life to save me had she found me facing the wol— ’

Bart clapped his hand and hoof over his mouth to stop his new tongue. What had he just said? Besides the grief it might’ve brought Hugo’s youngest child, Leah, Sofie wouldn’t have given a hoot about Bart’s death. How could he have possibly argued otherwise?

A deep frown formed on Innocent’s already twisted face. Then he clapped his hand and paw together in delight. ‘Master Goat, I believe your new tongue holds more human values than I expected; you are lying!’


‘Telling an untruth, how wondrous for a beast born to do such a thing! This will be greatly to our advantage when dealing with your wolf.’ The tomcat turned serious again. ‘But as for now, do speak to me truthfully.’

With more effort than it’d take to chew through a rope, Bart muttered, ‘She’s a dog. Her name is Sofie. She wouldn’t mind a bit had I died or never returned.’

Innocent hissed, restrained. His back arched like a bridge, and his fur raised to form its spiky railings. ‘I don’t like this idea.’

‘Then do you have any other suggestions?’ 

Innocent through, and thought, his sole eye narrowing more and more. Then, when his eyelids almost appeared to fold over each other, he let out a vexed,  ‘Miaooooooow!’ and pulled at his whiskers.

Bart took this as a ‘No’ to his question and a ‘Yes’ to his proposal. ‘But don’t fret Master Innocent,’ he said, petting the ugly cat on his head, only to be sent back by a slash of a clawed paw. ‘I’ll do the talking with the dog.’

‘I want to stay here,’ Innocent mewed, ears folded back.

‘But you made a promise,’ Bart reminded him. He had little faith in how the tomcat had interpreted that promise himself. It must’ve meant at least something, luckily. Innocent let go of his whiskers. He puffed up his patchy chest, inflating the ego he’d lost when he heard ‘dog’ back to the proper, oversized status it had before.

‘Now then, Master Goat,’ the tabby tom said, ‘I propose we make it to your home, the farm, as fast as possible. You’ve been under Morpheus’ spell for hours, and the eve is ever nearing.’

As soon as they could, Bart and Innocent snuck out of the house, out of the village, to the cover of the green. Before they left, Bart had slid the many-coloured knife into one of his coat’s pockets. He wasn’t entirely sure if his new thief’s tongue had suggested taking it or if his common sense had spoken up when he stole it. It would come in handy when facing the wolf, after all. And it just… looked pretty. Bart couldn’t keep his eyes off the weapon as he led Innocent to Hugo’s farm, even though it was safely hidden in his pocket.

Innocent did not notice. He trod the forest floor warily, passing over the rising shadows of the trees that darkened their path, his new hand safely stuffed in the pouch around his neck. His tail twitched behind him restlessly as if it had a life on its own. As a farmhouse took shape between the trees, he asked, ‘Is that it, Master Goat?’ He glanced at Bart and knew it was. Then, more softly, the tabby tom added, ‘Where can we find her?’

‘I don’t think we need to,’ Bart replied. He was right. Sofie had caught their scent even before they set foot onto the farmland. She came charging at her perceived intruders, her floppy ears waving in the wind and her usually slightly sad-looking face set in a mad snarl, ‘TRESPASSERS! THUGS! THIEVES!’

Innocent hissed half-heartedly.

Bart hissed too. ‘Hush, Sofie. It’s me, Bart.’

Sofie would have none of it. She leapt at Bart, knocking him into the grass. She pinned him down. Her front paws pressed heavily onto his chest. Her bare teeth, dripping with drool, hung over his face like a waxing moon. Bart couldn’t breathe, let alone speak. His tongue was still swollen from the ritual. He looked around for Innocent, but the unsightly cat was nowhere to be seen. Bart tried to reach for his stolen knife.

Sofie’s mouth shut. She sniffed. Then she sniffed again, deeply, as if to pull Bart’s entire face into her shiny black nose. Her usually drowsy, deep-set eyes widened. ‘BART!’ she barked. Slobber splattered everywhere. ‘Bart, Bart, Bart, you mean, mean traitor of our master’s trust. I didn’t recognise you.’

‘Traitor?’ Bart exclaimed. With Sofie caught off guard, he shoved her off him and got back on his feet.

‘A mean, mean traitor,’ Sofie snarled. ‘You brought the wolf to the farm; yes, you did. You got Herman and Ebony and Sable killed, and how do you think Hugo feels now? You don’t you mean, mean traitor, because you ran away to, — to, —’

Sofie circled Bart, taking in whiff after whiff as every scent was a word that would combine in a solid story of where he’d been.

‘I smell mint,’ she muttered, ‘I smell hog. I smell mud, weird mud, and, I smell, I smell… cat!’

Innocent, who had kept a comfortable distance from the short struggle, launched out of the bushes onto Bart’s coat. He clawed up to Bart’s shoulders. There he wrapped himself around Bart’s neck like a ragged seventh-hand scarf.

Sofie raised her head, growling. However, he raised his hands before she could jump at Bart again. ‘STOP! He’s a friend!’

‘A “fiend”, you mean!’ Sofie barked. ‘Cats are evil. Deceitful. They have a duty to guard the humans with whom they share their home but drain them of their hospitality like leeches instead. Just like you, Bart, you mean, mean—’

‘We don’t have to work for anyone,—’ Innocent interrupted, ‘because we have more charm than you. You’re just jealous.’

‘No! No! No!’ Sofie barked, followed by a deep growl; ‘I ought to drive my fangs through your wretched heart to send your damned soul back to hell!’

‘Ahhh, the hound doesn’t know her master’s bible well, does she? If you had only the wit to grasp a single verse, you’d know that would be impossible, seeing that no animal has a soul. That’d include you too, scab scratcher. Speaking of which, do you know what else the “Holy Book” has to say about your kind—’

‘The both of you, cease!’ Bart raised his hands and hoof. ‘This isn’t the ideal time to fight out a feud that can’t be settled here, or ever. Innocent, I need your wisdom now, not your wit. And Sofie, your snout would be of greater service for smelling than sneering. Your farmer’s family’s safety depends on that.’

‘Oh, so now you do care about Hugo?’ Sofie snuffed. Then the weight of what Bart had just said hit her like a whip. ‘Wait, what? Hugo and his family? In danger?  I’ve got to warn them!’

Sofie turned, ready to run back to the farmhouse, but Bart seized her by the scuff. He, too, would have preferred to inform the other farm occupants, Tillie, most of all, but there was no time for that now. The sun was vanishing fast. It was a matter of minutes before the night would fly over the forest, and the wolf would go to the town Bart could no longer thread.

‘Sofie, stop!’ Bart ordered. His new voice sounded harsher, more dominant than it ever had in the few hours Bart had had to get used to it. Its resemblance to Hugo when he ordered his hound around was uncanny and intentional. And, most importantly, it worked.

‘Now,’ Bart went on, ‘sit.’

Sofie sat down, her devout gaze fixed on him as if awaiting further orders.

‘Listen,’ Bart said, ‘if you help us now, you might not even have to warn the farmer’s family.’

‘But my Oath,’ Sofie whined under her panting breath. ‘My Oath of the Dog, it demands I always warn my masters when they are in danger. I must protect them; humans can’t do that themselves.’

‘I’m sure they can,’ Innocent interrupted. ‘Their skin is as fragile as autumn leaves, yes, and their claws are as blunt as tree stumps, yet—’

‘Innocent,’ Bart snapped, ‘pick your battles at a time that suits us all and, please, paw me the fur instead.’

Innocent gave Bart the patch of hairs he’d found with the beekeeper, and Bart, in turn, held it out to Sofie. ‘We’re looking for the farm’s assailant.’

Sofie sniffed once. Then she shook her head, her long lopped ears clapping against her droopy jowls. ‘Can’t be. This is no wolf. It’s human.’

‘That might be correct,’ Innocent uttered.

‘But it was a wolf that killed Herman and Ebony and Sable! I saw from the pawprints it left in the blood and feed. But… it smelled human, but I thought… it was a wolf…’

‘Let’s just say it’s both,’ Bart helped the hound out. Innocent agreed. ‘Now, that waste of time aside, do you think you can find it, dog?’

‘Can? Can? If this is what’s threatening my master, I must find it! I swear I’ll track him down, for it’s my solemn duty as a houu-uuuu-uuund!’ The last word came out as a vicious yowl as Sofie thrust her snout into the air. Then she leapt up and departed through an entry of overgrown weeds. Hadn’t she howled so loudly, her pursuers would’ve lost her already.

Bart and Innocent ran as if they were being chased by the wolf rather than hunting it. Sofie was fast and tireless, so tireless that she even had enough air in her lungs to howl during the hunt. It was a real war cry, bloodthirsty and fierce like the ones the heathens of old ran into battle with;


Your hide,

Your hide,

‘I smell you-oo-ooo!

You hide,

You hide,

‘But I’ll bite you-oo-ooo!’

Bart hoped the sound wouldn’t scare off the wolf. On the other hand, he didn’t mind. Sofie’s familiar barks were better than the silence of the woods at dusk. But, just when he thought the hound went still, something else sounded from the forest, not far away. It was a short, low hoot, followed by a longer one. Then, Sofie burst into a bark: ‘Devil! Ghoul! Imp!’

When Bart and Innocent caught up with her, she snarled an old spar. On one of its higher branches sat a creature Bart could not yet see through the darkness but heard and knew all too well.

‘Who?’ Oaken Talon called. ‘Who do you call a “ghoul”?’

‘You-oo-ooo!’ Sofie howled.

Innocent sighed and slowed. Bart had to stop not to step on the tomcat’s tail. ‘Dog,’ the cat said, ‘unless you’re sure our wolf-human sprouted wings to become a human-owl, would you please cease your woofing and walk on?’

‘He was hooting at me!’

‘Who are you to say?’ Offended, Oaken Talon pressed his claw against his plumy chest. ‘I was warming up my voice for my nightly serenade.’

‘Serenade to what?’ Sofie snarled. ‘The Devil?’

Innocent shook his head, sat and then lay down as if he was ready to wait long enough to see everyone turn to dust. Bart didn’t have time for that. He stepped between Sofie and the owl, demanding to know what was happening.

 ‘And who,’ Oaken Talon asked everyone but Bart, ‘is that?’

‘It’s me, Bartholomew!’ Bart exclaimed. ‘We met, Master Oaken Talon, about one or two moons ago.’

Oaken Talon descended a branch, finally revealing himself to Bart. His orange eyes were less bright than the last time they crossed paths, and his plumage was plumper. Bart couldn’t help but wonder whether the owl had been working overtime at his job as a mouse hunter.

‘Your voice is that of another,’ Oaken Talon said suspiciously. ‘And your looks are that of something you’re not supposed to be.’

‘And your eyes are still as keen as they ought to be,’ Bart said. Then he told how he came to be that way. All the while, Sofie stood with her front paws against the tree, growling until he finished, ‘…and thus, we’re looking for this not-wolf. Since you mentioned your annoyance about his presence on your hunting ground, and we’re here anyway, I thought you might help us with a hint or two…’

‘NO!’ Sofie barked. Then she turned to Bart. ‘Don’t you know all birds are evil, Bart? They’re fallen angels, like Lucifer, who can’t get back to Heaven.’

‘And where did you get that from, now?’

‘I think it was in one of those stories the men tell. From that one book, you know? Or it was from the Oath of the Dog; to protect the Master from birds that plague their lands. Either way, it’s true. We can’t trust this ghoul.’

‘How rude!’ Oaken Talon cried out. Bart feared he’d fly away, but then Innocent joined the conversation. 

‘Oh, dogs,’ the tabby tom yawned loudly. ‘Always so… dogmatic.’ Slowly, he got up, stretching his front paws first, followed by the back ones. Each made a snap akin to a breaking bone. Then, cautiously pussyfooting past Sofie, he leapt up the tree. All eyes were on him as he climbed to Oaken Talon’s branch.

‘Well, well, well,’ Innocent purred. ‘If it isn’t one Talon scions. Please, ignore our canine companion. I’d like to inform you that she has sadly not been provided with the most prejudiced-free reasoning, yet I’d rather not hurt her with such unkind comments.’

‘Wait, what?’ Sofie said, only to be swiftly shushed by Bart.

 ‘Instead,’ Innocent said, ‘allow me to speak. As a member of the Mouse-hunter’s Guild to another? I’m already well aware that our craft can be taxing, and I do not wish to hold you up any longer than is needed. And besides, if you were to assist us, we might be able to solve your issue and make your current schedule more bearable.’

The owl was infatuated with all the flattery that Bart had never expected Innocent to have in his twisted body. Oaken Talon shook up his feathers, muttering, ‘I don’t really have the time, but oh well, if it helps me, I suppose…’

Innocent bowed his ugly head out of false courtesy or to make it easier for the owl to look at him without haven to stare at his dreadful facial features. Either way, it had its desired effect. ‘Could you perhaps tell us if you’ve seen the not-wolf lately? It would be possible, seeing that he couldn’t have been able to return to the village without his skin.’

‘True,’ Oaken Talon replied, ‘I’ve seen the wolf every night and day. The one after my encounter with Master Bartholomew, I saw him climb from the river as wrathfully as he was wet. However, last nights he’s been rather absent. And now that you mention it, I have not caught a glimpse of him today either.’

‘How quint.’Innocent twirled his whiskers. ‘Had the beast been in the village or around, it wouldn’t have escaped my attention, nor that of my roaches or other cats.’

Sofie began to bark again. ‘I warned you, Bart, he’s a liar!’

But Bart wasn’t listening. He was thinking. Thinking how it was strange that the wolf had recently killed the town’s priest without having anywhere to hide; thinking how it didn’t make sense for the not-beast to strike again so soon after to kill a beekeeper, who had so much less significance; thinking that perhaps getting his new still half-waxen, half-thief’s tongue might not be as helpful as expected; thinking how he’d never go to go to a safe home again, never behold all the human-made miracles of the town, perhaps should just run away and never look behind and become a hermit goat somewhere up in forlorn mountains… When suddenly, all the thoughts clicked like lock and key. 

‘Innocent!’ Bart called out. ‘There’s this one day in the village when all the people go to the same big building, the crutch, I think. The one with the saints and the clocks and all. When is the next time that will happen?’

‘The church, you mean? Sunday, tomorrow, of course,’ Innocent said after the few seconds he required to get over his initial confusion. ‘Why so, Master Goat?’

‘“Bartholomew”, please.’

 ‘Master Bart, then, my apologies, do please continue.’

‘We need to get back to your master’s house in a hurry.’

‘But why?’ Though the tomcat didn’t want to admit it, he was at a loss. It was almost as if the billy goat in human skin had wizarded his wit away to use it himself.

‘Because,’ Bart declared, ‘I’m not the only one threading the town with a mask over his snout, and the church is the only place that person might show up, along with the rest of the town who needs to know about it!’

Chapter 6: Prey

Dawn. Sunlight reigned victorious in its never-ending battle with the shadows again, at least for now. The church bell tolled like that of a flagellant in the hour of the apocalypse. It unnerved Bart with his sensitive ears to no end. He was on the church’s roof, perched between the gargoyles. He’d lowered his human head skin as if it were a hood, exposing his goat face. Below, none of the townsfolk noticed him; such a fiend he looked like. Bart saw everyone, though.

Below were Lord Thomas, another man Bart recognised as his hatmaker, the town’s priest, Hugo’s family, whom Bart might never see again if all went awry, and many more folks. And among them was the wolf. Bart could almost sense his tormenter’s presence with certainty — all he doubted was whether he’d be able to unmask him.

Only if Innocent can set up everything in time, Bart mused. Then, Speaking of the Devil…

Innocent was creeping past floral ornaments, saints, and gargoyles, like an undertaker taking a nightly stroll through his graveyard.  

‘I must say,’ the tabby tom said tonelessly, ‘you are utilising my end of our bargain to its fullest.’ He took his place between Bart and a statue that was either an imp whose horns and wings had broken off or the cat’s long-lost twin. It stuck out its tongue at the crowd below. Innocent continued.

‘However, fright not. I and my roaches have prepared everything for your little play. It’s true what you said about the church crypt. There’s a sort of contraption that makes the place as sweltering as a stove in the summer. Humans can be surprising after all, I suppose.’

‘It astounds me too,’ Bart replied, ‘that you’re still helping me.’

‘We’ve made a deal, that’s all. All that currently concerns me is if I’ll be able to hold up my end of it with this dubious concept which you call a plan.’

Bart couldn’t allow the cat to cast him into hesitation. Not now. ‘I’ve witnessed you turn wax into flesh, Master Innocent. Who knows what a servant of Satan could sculpt? Who knows what mask he might’ve made after I stole his skin?’

Innocent only nodded. Instead of facing Bart, he let his only eye slide to the gargoyle next to him. Then he pulled an ugly face towards the unknowing townsfolk too. A few pigeons who’d been avidly painting the other statues white with their excrements took off, frightened. Then the church bells stopped chiming. The building’s doors opened, and the villagers ran inside like a recently shaven flock of sheep making their way to the warm barn. And it would be warm — warm enough to make wax melt.

The square was deserted. Everyone had sought shelter in the safe haven that was the House of God. Only one man — who was not really a man — was outside, waiting by the church’s heavy, ornamented door. Bart pressed an ear against the carvings of Saint Francis and a very docile-looking wolf. The pipe organ — which Innocent had informed Bart to be the name of the metallic instrument — resonated through the wood.

Bart hummed along. Not only because he finally could hum with his new tongue but also because he didn’t want to lose track of the tunes. For, in a few seconds, they fell silent. The whole church became still as if the people who remained between its fresco-coated walls had silently slid down into the catacombs beneath. Then the murmuring began:

‘Why did the organ stop?’

‘Something seems to be stuck between the keys.’

‘Could it perhaps have something to do with the heat?’

‘I’m suffocating in here.’

‘Please, please, could you all remain quiet?’

The last voice, though Bart couldn’t recognise it, was Priest Andreas’s. His skin-over-bones-build left him feeling cold consistently, but he, too, couldn’t ignore the hellish heat that haunted the House of God. He demanded one of the choirboys check on the stoker of the hypocaust under the church. He could not help but shed a look at Richard as he waited for either’s return. The young man appeared dull, paler than the others of his choir, yet not pale or sickly enough to make Andreas believe that the bastard had had to lock himself into his room the last few months. The priest got why he got kicked out of the monastery.

Suddenly the pipe organ blew out its last breath, bringing Andreas back from the past to the now. The sound was haunting. He couldn’t help but make a cross. He would’ve done far more had he known the church’s stoker and the choirboy he’d sent to get him were tied up in the crypt by roaches — the same ones that colonised the pipe organ keys.

Outside, Bart knocked on the church door. He put on his broad-brimmed hat. It was rude, he knew, but he didn’t wish to expose the ‘witch mark’ on his forehead, as Innocent had called it. He also hid his hoof hand in his pocket. There, the hard keratin touched something even harder and much sharper. Bart still had the colourful knife he’d stolen from his feline friend. He’d forgotten all about it, yet he was grateful for the sharp soothing touch of the blade. It was all that could grant him safety from the not-wolf and the hundreds of townsfolk inside. That, and hopefully, his newfound power to speak, lie and persuade.

The door opened. It was so hot inside that the air felt like made of wool. Daylight crept over the marble church floor, lighting the path between the benches and the altar. The pillars cast the people in heavy shades, but their eyes gleamed. They reminded Bart of the curious colonies of bats that often inhabited the undersides of the barn roof at home. Only the bats hung upside down. The villages all stood up. Aside from that, they were bats in all but name; they, too, were out for blood.

Lord Thomas rubbed his sleep-deprived eyes with his massive fists. He couldn’t believe what he saw. There was the young man he’d wasted day and night to search for, straying into the church like Christ had so serenely surrendered himself to the Romans when they came to arrest him. Thomas thought: the malefactor must feel very guilty, or the Lord didn’t bother to give him wit during his making. Or, he’s just foolhardy.

The latter was seemingly true; when Lord Thomas rose from his front-row seat, demanding the felon to say what he had to find in the Holy House, the man cut him off with a simple gesture. Then, to all attendees’ surprise, he spoke.  

‘Villagers!’ the bandit with the broad-brimmed hat began. ‘Noblemen and clergy!’

The man’s voice didn’t resemble what the lord — or anyone, for that matter — had anticipated. He’d imagined it more nasal, more yammering, something that would suit the crook’s goatish goatee more. But he sounded pleasant, like a storyteller. The kind that made one think all his tales were true.

‘To my utmost regret and regard for you all, I’ve come here to clarify the hair-raising happenings of late.’ The man peered into the crowd. Even though he wore a hat, it took no eagle’s eye to see that warmth was wrapping its oven-like arms around him too. Sweat ran down the crook’s hooked nose as he continued, ‘These crimes, however, have not been of my doing. They were the work of something — no, not someone. I’m confident to say that this being doesn’t deserve to be acknowledged as such. You’d agree with me, won’t you, dear lord Thomas?’

Eyes shifted towards the lord like hundreds of pairs of rolling beads. Thomas, however, only looked at the unusual intruder. His gutsiness impressed the nobleman, yet it made him want to kill the crook by strangling him with his organs. This mockery had gone too far.

‘What are you talking about?’ lord Thomas bellowed. ‘And what are you even doing here, you wolf? I can have you arrested, bound to a breaking wheel of Catherine and all your bones broken for your fiendish felonies with just a flick of my finger.’

‘You could,’ the crook replied, ‘but not here, nor now, and not without trial. I have a right to a trial. And, even if I were guilty, the church has the right to remain free of bloodshed. Right, Priest Andreas?’

‘Correct.’ The hollow-cheeked clergyman hesitated. The heat and the unheralded visit of this villain both left the priest shaking on his straw-thin legs. ‘But,— but, if you aren’t the wolf, then who do you say it is, mister…’

‘I am Bartholomew,’ Bart said. ‘And this “wolf”, priest Andreas, is among your flock.’

Bart was stretching time. Innocent could tell so, even from his high-up position behind the stained glass windows. The words spoken in the church were too far away to reach him; however, expressions were not. Bart’s became more trepid with every sentence he said. His wide eyes went from churchgoer to churchgoer, ending back at lord Thomas without ever espying the incognito wolf.

But Bart should have checked behind the altar where the choir and priest abided. Innocent didn’t. Lacking his left eye, his right was trained well enough to spot a mouse from over fifty cat leaps away. That one of the choirboys’ noses slowly sank to his lips didn’t go unnoticed to the cyclops cat.

So, it’s you, Innocent mused. He pressed his ragged nose against the colourful glass. The boy’s facial features warped. Wax wept down his cheeks, exposing the underlying fur. His sinless yet soulless smile seeped into a twisted sneer, only to transform into a maw of teeth. The boy cowered. He tried to hide behind his hands, but they were paws.

Anyone should’ve seen this anomaly; only they didn’t. Everyone’s attention was on Bart. Because what was happening to the wax mask of the wolf also occurred in the goat’s throat. Bart reached for his neck. He gagged, coughed and cried for aid. Yet no sound came out. His dark-skinned face turned a raw, liver-red shade.

Innocent had anticipated that something akin to this would occur, though not so fast and not whilst no one was looking at the wolf. It was Bart’s fault; he hadn’t considered what consequences turning a church into an oven might have. No Saint, Seraph or Satan could save him from that misstep. Such were, after all, the shields of men.

Bart had something else. He had a deal. A specific deal with a particular cat that preferred to stick to his word like mildew to a damp wall.

Hastily, Innocent reached for the pouch around his neck. He was sure Bart would survive the blockage in his throat; the goat was already clawing some chunks out of his gullet. The wax had mingled with old blood, which made it seem as if Bart was spewing all his innards on the marble church floor that looked like unspoiled snow in the sunlight. The superstitious villagers stayed at bay. For now.

Innocent would have to distract them the second his semi-human companion stopped spewing. And, optimally, direct their attention to the wolf. Innocent got his new hand from the pouch. He sought his hued knife, too and found nothing. His purse was bigger than it appeared, yet the tabby tomcat was positive that it was not so sizable that the blade had gone missing. Someone must have taken it.

There was no time for thought now, though, and Innocent had to make due with what he had. With one human hand and five cat claws, he pried a piece of prismatic glass from the window. It was a skin-like tint and previously part of the foot of Saint Paul.

Due to a lack of two thumbs, Innocent could only hold it in his human hand. He lowered it back through the hole he’d created, into the church, careful not to cut his precious ‘glove’. Then he turned the glass even more slowly and heedfully until suddenly, a ray of sunshine slid over the shard.

Innocent held himself very, very still. The beam of light danced on what was formerly Saint Paul’s foot. A feeble reflection of the light fell on the floor below. Being a cat to the core, Innocent felt an undeniable urge to leap at the light, but he had to dismiss that desire now. He was not supposed to chase it; the people were.

Innocent rotated the glass shard. Like a skittish mouse, it darted over the church floor. It went past the back benches, came very close to Bart, and caught, along with the disguised goat’s attention, many eyes as a result. The light went to the altar, past Priest Andreas, and ended by the door behind the choir. He was just in time. The choirboy he sought was at the doorway that led up to the church tower. He was about to get away when he suddenly saw the light. He must have sensed there was no way of escaping anymore, for he turned towards it.

The choirboy was no longer a boy nor anything that could have ever served the pious and God-fearing. The chest of his uniform had become a scarf of wax. His face was a nightmare covered in maggot-coloured fur. His teeth were large and sharp like broken bones, and his eyes were hate itself.

The not-really-wolf, who was also not truly a choirboy, straightened his back, tearing his clothes in the process. He grew gigantesque. The tips of his ears reached far above the head of the door like Devil horns. Then he dropped on all fours and let out a growl that was more man than beast, yet no less frightening.

‘Richard?’ Priest Andreas sputtered before his Holy Bible fell from his fidgeting fingers.

Unease and apprehension followed as if the rest only understood what was happening now. Then, hoarsely, pointing at the beast, Bart exclaimed, ‘There, priest Andreas! There, lord Thomas! There, my dearest villagers! There is your monster!’  

For a moment, everyone feared that the God mockery, which was Richard, would hurl forward and turn the place of sanctity into a slaughterhouse. Yet he didn’t. He turned his rugged, furred back to the crowd and dashed up the stairway behind the door.

Bart was the first to take action. He rushed after the beast, wheezing like a child with whooping cough as he tracked him upstairs. Spittle and blood escaped his mouth at every breath. By the time Bart reached the top of the stairs, he found himself in a state of vertigo. He was in the bell tower.

Not now. Bart shook his head, forcing himself to see, think, and walk straight. Not now, not now; I can’t let the wolf get away, not now. He’s so close. He sensed it all too clearly; Richard was here.

The beast’s bitter smell filled the air. His muted growls, sinister and spiteful, reverberated through the tower. They even seemed to stir the church bell that hung in the middle, corrupting its smooth bronze texture. There was no way Bart could tell where the noise came from. ‘What are you, Richard?’ he asked.

The reply came not in words but in sound. Something scrambled behind Bart. He didn’t turn around, well aware that facing the creature would be a death sentence compared to which the promised burning would be a blessing. Bart focused on the bell ahead. Its bronze surface was so perfectly polished that he saw his own ragged face in it. And, no more than a horse’s leap behind that, he caught a glimpse of his tormenter.

‘What,’ Bart tried again, ‘are you?’ Every word stuck in his gullet as if a hedgehog had nested there.

‘No,’ the response came. It was no longer the charming voice Bart had heard the beast speak with the night of his uninvited visit to the barn. It was that of a demon. ‘What are you, the one who managed to unmask me and cursed the church to be a sweltering hellscape? Tell me, for I’d like to know the name of the foolish being which managed to track me down before I bite its head off.’

Bart was too busy overcoming his instinct to escape. Behind him was the beast, and ahead, the bell. Going left or right was not an idea Bart was willing to put his faith into; the wolf would notice. Up would defy everything on earth, and down…

There was a way down, through the opening under the church bell from which its rope dangled. For now, only the blood and sweat dripping off Bart’s face made it down there.

‘You don’t want to say?’ Richard’s breath was on Bart’s neck now. Then, he licked Bart. Bart didn’t want to know if it was to terrify or get a taste of him. Petrified, he started at his reflection as the beast’s meaty tongue slid over his shoulder and neck to his cheek like an obese slug. It was a man’s tongue, though, not a wolf’s.

Could it be, Bart wondered, that just like his speech, this ‘wolf’s ’ senses are still the same as his human ones? That would explain why Richard couldn’t track me down by scent.

And, more importantly, it gave Bart hope. Because, compared to most animals, even goats, the human senses left a lot to be desired.

Bart tensed as the wolf behind him whispered, ‘Not much of a speaker without the village audience, are you? Quite a shame.’

The beast reared its head like a snake about to spit venom. Bart could only see a flash of his teeth in the bronze bell. Then, the wolf’s mighty maw came down at him.

Bart turned, raising his left goat hoof just in time. Instead of sinking his teeth into Bart’s neck, head or shoulder, Richard got a hard hoof between his jaws. He didn’t realise it until it was too late. Two teeth broke on the keratin.

Pained, Richard snarled, yet he was unwilling to let go. He twitched and jerked his heavy head like a rabbit ensnared. Bart pulled, too, at every moment he saw the chance to, however slight. They were caught in the dance they’d started the second Bart stole Richard’s skin many nights ago in the dark, drab woods.

‘No!’ Richard growled, not once weakening his bite. Blood spattered from the holes his teeth once were. ‘No, it can’t be! But… alas, it is; you’re that goat! The goat who stole my skin! But then, from whom did you steal your tongue? I begged to be given one of a wolf so that I could howl and growl like one, send shivers down folks’ spines when the moon is full and —’

In the short moment of sentiment, Richard’s pull slackened. Bart hastily hauled his hoof from the beast’s head toward the bell. The wolf stumbled and fell forward. Then, multiple ear-splitting noises erupted as his head collided with the bronze. Bart had no time to decide which was worse, the tolling of the bell, the cries of the beast, or the subtle sound his skull made upon the impact that promised irreparable damage. What mattered was that his adversary had let him go.

Covering his hurtful ears, Bart hastily sought shelter on the other side of the bronze bell. It was big enough to hide him from Richard and, unfortunately, the other way around. But even through the after-echo of the bell, Bart could hear him.

This not-wolf didn’t possess the same skill of stealth as a real one. His claws dragged over the floor. His breathing was unbridled. And, self-assured of his physical advantage as he was, he also talked.

‘You spoiled piece of chevon!’ the wolf said. He wiped the gore off his maw. ‘If I wanted to, I’d curse you so the Devil will turn you into a pair of shoes. But no, you don’t deserve that. I suppose I’ll do the work for myself and then some, for no being in this world or beyond despises you as I do me! I’ll see to it that every goat near this town and the city will find itself cut open, bound to a tree, spread-eagle, before the next dawn.’

Richard’s paw-steps advanced from the left side of the bell. Bart tiptoed to the right. ‘I sense quite some vanity in that claim,’ he uttered, testing how well Richard could hear him. Even less than Bart had suspected, it turned out. On the other side of the bell, the wolf paused to see if his prey might’ve fled part of the room opposite Bart.

‘Perhaps I can’t,’ the beast mused. ‘However, goat, I think your fears are just selling you sweet lies. So tell me, do you have any billies, or does you cherish? Was it the one in the barn I found you in my skin? Where I gave three of  your master’s beasts a merciful death?’

‘Yes. I have a sister.’ Bart knew his tormenter would execute his plan, whatever he said or however far the beast could carry it out. It was a mistake. Suddenly, Richard moved closer.

‘Then be prepared to have her throat ripped out after I ate her heart as it still beats in vain as I did with so many of my kin and other creatures. Because none of the people below will catch me. Otherwise, they’d be here already, but no, they’re too scared and will let me escape and pathetically pray that I’ll move to another town.’

This time, Bart shuffled away towards the door from which he came. Nevertheless, Richard was catching up. Bart took off his broad-brimmed hat, hoping he could cause a distraction with it to make it to the exit and lock Richard up behind him. ‘Why?’ He tried to stretch time. ‘Why take her as an innocent, the same as your other prey?’

‘Innocent? Ha!’ Richard let out an unholy chimaera of cackles and howls. ‘No beast is innocent, and no beast is guilty! You have no soul. You are slaves to your instincts! Cherish that right, goat. Cherish it, and be a beast, follow your instinct, and run, because there’s nothing else you can do. And I’ll catch up with you. Always.’

Bart stopped. He looked down at his broad-brimmed hat with its majestic feather. He was less than a breath out of Richard’s sight, he knew, yet he couldn’t help but think of everything that led up to the moment. Had it been his instinct that had led him into the dark woods to find the skin? Had his sister nearly sacrificed herself for him because her senses told her to? Had Innocent and Sofie set aside the feud between their species because a higher power commanded them to?

‘No,’ Bart whispered.

‘What?’ the hoarse voice of his enemy sounded behind him.

‘Though I might be soulless,’ Bart declared, ‘I, along with other beasts, as few as there might be, am not senseless.’

Then, Bart faced Richard. Ignoring every animal impulse he ever had, he grabbed onto his hat with both hoof and hand and pulled it over the astounded beast’s face. This time, Bart had the advantage of the attacker. He threw his whole weight at Richard. Richard tried to bite him with all his might, yet only ate the hat’s tough leather. He slowly began to stumble backwards, closer and closer to the hole under the bell.

Richard, at last, decided to utilise his feral features for something other than slaughter and set his hind claws into the wood to get a grip on the flood. He began to stride forwards. Guttural sounds resembling neither man nor beast rose from his blood-filled throat. His front paws lashed out at Bart, once, twice, scraping his shoulder on the third try.

Bart bit his new tongue in order not to scream. Then, for the first time since the fight started, he used his head the way a goat ought to: he rammed it right into Richard’s skull. An unsavoury ‘crack’ sounded through the room. Richard lost his footing, stepped backwards and fell. There was a short screech from the beast as the hole under the bell swallowed him. For one blessed second, it was silent.

Bart signed. His relief was soon interrupted, not by the thump, smack or splash that this tormenter would have naturally made when hitting the marble floor below. No, it was the bellowing of the bell.

A grievous grimace ironed out the little bit of victory Bart felt flourish on his face. He covered his ears, clenching them with a hand and a hoof. The bell kept tolling. Its strokes were longer, louder than before, and it was a genuine struggle to even get near it to find out what caused it. Bart already had his suspicions. And he was right.

When Bart leaned over the edge to look down the hole under the bell, he came eye-to-eye with Richard’s fiery stare. He’d gotten his dirty paws on the bell’s rope in his fall. He was climbing back up now. And, despite the crack Bart had caused to his forehead, the bestial thing still had enough sense to grasp Bart by the collar. Richard pulled him towards his cratered face. ‘Listen, you fiend,’ he whispered as if he wanted to say something of urgency, perhaps reveal his greatest secret. Bart cared little for that. He knew he had to escape the beast’s clutches before he could take them both down.

Bart tried to tear his coat free, only to recall he still carried the knife he stole from Innocent. It couldn’t have served him in one-to-one combat with the wolf, but it would do perfectly for now.

Hastily, Bart fumbled the multi-coloured knife from his pocket. He stuck it into the paw with which his attacker was holding him, right between the joints. Bart acted too quickly to hear him even howl. He slashed again, this time aiming for the rope. Only half its strings loosened. However, combined with Richard’s weight, it was enough to tear the whole thing down. The rope snapped.

Finally, Richard fell, his body to Earth, and his soul — if he had any left — to Hell. He hit not the marble but the erected metal pipes of the church’s organ. They punctured him like stakes, sending his innards all over the shiny marble and his human tongue lolling from his jaws. An unholy sound came from the instrument as a result.

The crowd below, which Bart had forgotten were part of the world as well, looked up at him.

Chapter 7: Bishop’s son

The cut in Bart’s shoulder wasn’t as severe as he’d suspected. He could still stumble down the stairs. The churchgoers below stood around the remains of Richard they’d been able to heave off the organ. Guessing by the punctured carcass, some pieces were still stuck in the metal barrels.

People stared in disbelief and disgust. Many praised Bart with all known blessings as he walked by. Others spoke to one another. Bart could only catch a few words of what — aside from his deceased tormenter’s stomach-turning state — caused their wonder: 

‘Who’d expected it, him, Richard, the wolf, a faithless— ’

‘Even a mule might’ve seen it coming, I mean—’

‘Richard? A boy of such illicit origin as his? He was destined to—’

‘But that means he killed—’

‘Yes, Richard killed his own father, the former Priest Benjamin, as a wolf.’

‘Lord bless his soul!’

‘I doubt it, honestly.’

Bart was too tired to put two and two together now, let alone every word from an entire crowd. He approached the two men who might tell him all about it straight instead; Priest Andreas and Lord Thomas. The first was uttering prayers when Bart came to him — the second poked Richard with his sword to ensure the beast was dead. 

‘I presume, my lord, priest, that an explanation for what just passed mightn’t be entirely unwished for.’ Bart shed a fleeting look at the dead creature. ‘I do have some myself either way.’

‘I suppose I ought to ask you for forgiveness,’ Priest Andreas began. ‘However, understand, my son, that doubt can be quickly sown, most certainly when one lives in a time where angels can fall so easily and turn towards the Devil for comfort. 

‘I’d almost blame myself that this happened to Richard, that he got tempted, but was it not meant to happen? After all, he is — was — the bastard son of priest Andreas.’

‘And a harlot,’ Lord Thomas added unabashedly, upon which Priest Andreas corrected him, ‘A maid.’

‘Like I said.’ Thomas finally decided that the subject of their quarrel was as dead as the ten quails he dined on yesterday. He withdrew his sword.

Bart saw no pleasure in joining the argument. He stared at the wolf, who wasn’t really a wolf. Richard was his name, and he’d been born the bastard son of the former priest. All the townsfolk took comfort in the confirmation that the unlawful bastard had gotten his comeuppance, yet Bart derived no joy from it. Richard deserved to die. Bart did not doubt that. However, he didn’t suppose that it had been destined to be that way, whatever the priest and the lord had just said.

Bart was a goat, after all. And yet, he stood here, in the village’s church, heralded a hero. He’d had miracles on his way there. He’d made decisions. Richard, the man who became a wolf, must’ve too.

‘Excuse me, Priest Andreas, Lord Thomas,’ Bart interrupted the still ongoing argument, ‘but I don’t think I’ve introduced myself nor justified my reason for being here yet. If you’d allow me?’

‘Of course,’ the priest said stiffly.

‘Gladly,’ the lord agreed more agreeably. The villagers, with their unanimous silence, concurred.

‘I’m not from here,’ Bart began, which was, more or less, accurate. Then, however, he lied that he came from far away. That was enough for his thief’s tongue to orchestrate a full false origin for himself. He plucked parts from the Bible tales he’d heard farmer Hugo speak of and his own life. To the result, he added an overdose of the finest make-believe.   

‘I was born the bastard of a bishop,’ Bart began his lie, ‘though none in the nunnery I was raised told which one. I prayed many times for answers which I never received. Thus, when I came of age, I left the convent and became a hermit. My vow was that of silence so that I might be able o hear the reply to prayers whenever it would come.

‘Last spring, however, I was struck with hunger. I was forced to leave the forest where I currently dwelled to find food in the nearest village. I admit it was a moment of weakness, yet never had I expected to be punished with the accusation of being a murderer.

‘Having said that, when I heard talk of what terrors the real culprit caused to this area, I saw no choice but to track him down. Or else, I’d have to die for crimes that did not bloody my hand whilst the culprit was still loose.’

Bart glanced at Priest Andreas and Lord Thomas, which was anything but subtle. Both authorities hung their heads like dogs who’d done their outside duty indoors. ‘I never intended for an eremite like yourself to break his Holy vow,’ the priest said. ‘Would you be willing to forgive me …?’

‘Bartholomew,’ Bart said.

‘Bartholomew?’ lord Thomas echoed the word as if tasting it. He lay his spade of a hand on Bart’s unhurt shoulder and kissed him on both cheeks. When he let go, he declared, ‘Bartholomew, the bishop’s son. You’re now free of all your charges.’

Then, people cheered in the church for the first time since it had been built. Some rushed towards Bart to kiss him on the hand like one does to a Saint or other holy man. Bart accepted the appreciation, though he had to look out that no one accidentally took his hoof instead of his hand. Other villagers praised him with blessings he’d never heard from the farmer’s family. The men who’d hunted him priorly now bowed before him, begging for forgiveness. Lord Thomas hailed him a champion and invited him for a feast in his honour. Meanwhile, Priest Andreas insisted that he attend all services from now on.

And Bart?

People whirled around him like a hurricane and were noisy like one, too. Bart shook his head. He waved all offers away and urged the villagers to clear the way. Bart greeted them all with a humble yet weary smile. He only spoke with the hatmaker he met on his first day at the village.

‘Thank you,’ Bart said. He tipped his hat or what was left of it. The leather had been top-quality and tough, but so had Richard’s jaws. The feather was no more than a crooked quill, and flaps of fabric fell over Bart’s face.

The hatmaker apologetically offered to make a new one without charge, but Bart declined. ‘Allow me to pay fairly next time,’ he said. Then, he left the church and all its people behind him.

Bart strolled back to the farm calmly as if the world would never end. His arm hurt, as did his tongue. However, the serene and now safe greenery he encountered on the road numbed the pain. Leaves and branches swayed on the late spring breeze. The sun was high in the heavens, and Bart thought, This could be a beautiful day. 

But, unknown to Bart, something trailed after him. Between all the branches, a tattered tabby shadow followed his every step. Only a few feet from the farm, it leapt out of the bushes and stopped in the middle of the muddy road. 

 ‘My, oh, my,’ Innocent purred. ‘There he is; the instinct ignorer; the wolf’s skull crusher; the people’s self-proclaimed saint.’

Bart shrugged but grinned. ‘It took me a miracle to get there.’ He considered. ‘More so than the skin. This light, this little glimmer, led me to unmask that Richard. I don’t know if you witnessed it, but if you had, you would believe in miracles.’

Innocent replied, ‘I already do believe in such signs. I’m just of the conviction that they often require assistance. You played your part in one well today, Master Goat. Or should I say, “Bartholemew Bishops”? They’ll call you that before the next dawn, you know. Humans are like that.’

‘And you? What will you call me then?’

‘Me?’ Innocent innocently placed his paw on his plucky chest. ‘I’d be speaking with two tongues if I said I cared. Speaking of which…’

The tabby recovered a small jar with what looked like the honey and mint mix he’d used when cutting off Bart’s tongue. Bart eagerly took it from him. He tried to open the jar but couldn’t with a hurt shoulder and a hoof for a hand. Bart couldn’t even get a grasp on the lid.

‘Perhaps you ought to try it with the knife,’ Innocent suggested. Bart glanced at him. At once, he realised that the cat knew; that Bart had his knife.

Bart got the brilliant blade from his pocket. ‘My sincerest apologies,’ he muttered, more irritated than he’d imagined.

Innocent ignored the insincere expression of regret. ‘No,’ he mewed, ‘you keep it. Just remember that if you do, you owe me a favour.’

‘What kind of favour?’

‘I had no particular thing in mind. Not yet, at least. But perhaps… Perhaps you could pay off a small portion of that favour by coming by sometimes. Human laws deem it more important that my master tends to his patients more often than me. Though I now have one hand to play cards with, it saddens me to say that I lack someone to play with occasionally.’

The tabby tom tilted his head in a fashion Bart could only describe as pleading. Begging, even.

‘Sure, Master Innocent.’ Bart held out his hand, his human one. ‘That’s a deal.’

Sofie greeted Bart at the edge of the farm, loudly barking, ‘Bart, Bart, Bart!’ She jumped up against him and asked, more subdued, ‘How did it go? Is Hugo’s farm safe again?’

Bart petted the hound’s ever-troubled head. ‘I’d bet my hides it is,’ he said.

‘And I helped good, didn’t I?’

‘No violations have been made on your Oath of the dog,’ Bart assured.

‘Good!’ Sofie wagged her tail. Then she sat down and longingly looked at the direction Bart had come from. ‘And when do you think they’ll be back?’

Bart followed the dog’s drowsy gaze. The church tower was too far away to tell the time — even if either of the two animals could construe clocks in such a manner. The sun said enough, though; the service would soon come to its planned end.

‘Faster than I’d wish for,’ Bart uttered. ‘However, Sofie, seeing that I helped you protect the farm, could you also do me a favour and tell Tillie I’m back? And whilst you’re on it, could you hide my second skin in the barn?’ 

‘Sure!’ Sofie said happily. ‘But only if you’re quick. I must be there when the family returns; they must’ve missed me!’

Bart hastily undressed from his three-layered suit of skin and fabric. He made a neat little package out of it, which Sofie took in her mouth before she ran off to the barn. Bart was lucky to know the way. Even though his hooves galloped faster than the night he met his nemesis, eager to see his sister again, Sofie reached the barn long before him. She stood in the field by the time Bart arrived.

Tillie waited next to Sofie, but only for a short time. When she saw Bart, her ears went up, and she ran towards him. The fence, which was low enough for the dog to leap over but too high for a goat, saved them from a happy headbutt that could’ve been deadly even to their horned skulls.

‘Tillie! Tillie, I’m so sorry I didn’t return to you in time!’

‘Bart, what happened? You sound different… You sound… human.’

Bart pressed his caprine nose between the fence pickets, touching his sister’s. ‘Tillie,’ he whispered, ‘I’ve got a story to tell, you won’t believe.’


Hugo arrived at his farm later than he’d wanted to. ‘The service took too long,’ he complained to his wife, Olivia. Then he told their children, who walked behind them like three equally grousing goslings, ‘Thea, David, Lea, shut it. It was good that the priest dedicated his precious time to tell us of the treacherous trails that lead to sin, most certainly after that bastard —’

Olivia squeezed Hugo’s arm. Before he could reply that ‘bastard’ was a perfectly acceptable word to use in this context, she pointed at the pasture where they let their goats and sheep roam free.

‘Isn’t that…?’ their son, David, pointed at the fence. On its fenced side stood their russet doe. On its outside, however, was their black billy goat.

‘Bart came back!’ Leah, the youngest child, gleefully exclaimed. She rushed towards the goat before her parents could stop her because she might scare him away. The black billy made no such attempt. Instead, he allowed the young girl to embrace him as he quietly waited for the rest of the family to approach. ‘Silly Bart,’ Leah muttered in between cuddles and kisses. ‘Where did you go? We worried the wolf got you.’ 

‘Well, I’ll be…’ Hugo swallowed his words again. ‘Damned’ was not suitable for any context, after all. He scratched his balding head. ‘Might as well be, Leah. Look, the bugger got hurt. Suppose he came back because we could help him. Clever thing.’

‘I told you, father,’ Thea, the oldest child,  finally spoke up. ‘He’s a weird one.’

Then, as if the goat knew what the farmer’s family talked about, he bleated gleefully. It didn’t sound much like a bleat, though. It was more of a laugh – a human laugh.

The end